Youth rights are human rights

In my ongoing study of literature and organizing in the area of youth rights, I have finally constructed the analysis that I feel has been missing in my work with Freechild. The title of this post handily summarizes the thought: Youth Rights are Human Rights. While that might seem kind of simplistic and jingoistic, I think there is a beauty to developing a concise message.

Look at the individual definitions: The Human Rights Resource Center says that human rights are those basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity. National Youth Rights Association reports they fight for freedom for youth from oppression or discrimination by government, business, or other powers.

Within those definitions there is a lot of room for interpetation, and rightfully so. However, the two definitions are far from exclusive; instead, one seems to expand upon the other in an appropriate way. NYRA actually offers an expanded notion of human rights, where more than simply recognizing the absence of rights, they actually seek to hold the perpetuator accountable. That idea puts water to a 1999 article from the Third World Network, where the author proposes that without doing what NYRA is doing, the human rights movement could end up doing exactly what they think they are solving!

Its kind of ironic, because a lot of major national and international human rights organizations have webpages that seem very tokenizing of youth. Human Rights International (in Canada) and Amnesty International USA both make grandoise statements about youth on their website without speaking specifically about youth rights. The Wikipedia article on youth rights takes a stab at this hypocrisy in relationship to the children’s rights movement. Lately I’ve felt that perspective to be a little misguided, but I don’t want to invalidate it, because frankly, it bothered me for quite a while, too.

There are some missing pieces in the youth rights argument, as well. There is a bold statement on the NYRA website that they are not seeking special treatment for youth, or what they call “entitlement rights”; rather, they want equal treatment. I take exception to that, particularly because of the society-wide acceptance of adultism. Young people do not need equal treatment. After being subjected to inferior opportunities for civic participation and practical education for the majority of their lives, simply giving youth a seat at the table is not enough. Young people need equity; that is, they need to learn what the table is for, be given a chair that fits their needs (as they define them), be provided for in their learning style, and be engaged in a meaningful and substantive way. These are entitlement rights, and I believe they are exactly what is needed in order to affect rights for youth in a realistic and powerful way.

Put it this way: Just as the UN should not simply fly over a country, throw medicine from a plane, and fly away expecting disease to leave, neither should youth rights advocates seek only the vote. That’s why I believe young people need opportunities for self-driven civic engagement, meaningful service to others, cultural activities, and other forms of responsible social interaction, which in turn begets the awareness among both youth and adults that, yes, young people do have and do need human rights.

Reflecting on a human rights project engaging youth, an Australian blogger recently wrote, “The subtlety of expression and the grasp these young people have on concepts that are often glossed over by adults is extraordinary as they exercise one of the rights given to them; the right to be express their ideas.” Even though NYRA didn’t stir up at this blogger to support youth rights this last weekend, I am determined, and I am sure they are more determined than ever, to keep this struggle moving forward. I will do it under this new banner – what do you think?

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