Disrupt & Innovate

Every Voice Counts UN Puts Spotlight on Children as Human Rights Defenders

9th October 2018 by Beatrice Schulter, Lena Ingelstam, Tom Hodenfield, Ulrika Cilliers

Many children want to defend their rights and the rights of others and when children speak out things change.

Every day, millions of children take action and influence laws, budgets, service delivery and the realization of their rights as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They speak out on poverty, education, health, violence, the environment, discrimination, and many other things. Children are human rights defenders when they take action and promote, monitor and defend children’s rights and the rights of others.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides all children with the right to act as human rights defenders, rights which are reinforced in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

“I believe we are all human rights defenders in our own way. Some of us in small and quiet ways because that’s how we feel and all we can give to the world and some in large ways. The impact may be big or small but we all fight for what we believe in.”
Child participating in Child Rights Connect & Centre for Children’s Rights Survey

92 per cent of children who participated in a new survey by Child Rights Connect and the Centre for Children’s Rights at Queen’s University, Belfast, see themselves as human rights defenders. But children face serious challenges when promoting and defending their rights and the rights of others. In the survey, children identify four main barriers:

  • Adults do not take children seriously. They do not see children as competent and children’s views are not respected.
  • Children do not feel safe; 70 per cent of children are concerned about violence when they act as human rights defenders.
  • Children lack information; 40 per cent of children agree that one of the main challenges they face as human rights defenders is the lack of information about rights.
  • Children sometimes struggle to act due to lack of time, money and ability to travel to meetings.

Children from the most marginalized and deprived groups often face additional challenges when they want to take action and promote and defend rights.

Adults decide for us and think our opinions are less worthy than theirs just because we are younger. Adults play a negative role when they want to have the ‘last say’ without thinking they might be wrong.”

They told me’ feminazi’ and that they would sexually assault me.”
Children participating in Child Rights Connect & Centre for Children’s Rights Survey

On 28 September, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will host the first international meeting on how to empower and protect children as human rights defenders (Day of General Discussion). The UN Day of General Discussion will be a unique opportunity for the international community to hear from children on their experiences as human rights defenders, discuss challenges and opportunities and formulate clear recommendations to states and other actors.

To address the obstacles children face when promoting and defending human rights, the UN Day of General Discussion must generate clear recommendations to States to:

  • Put in place and implement laws that guarantee children’s rights to take civic action online and offline, including their rights to the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and to access information.
  • Provide age-appropriate public information in languages and formats that children understand.
  • Establish and resource child-friendly, inclusive and safe mechanisms and platforms, such as children’s parliaments, where children from all walks of life can engage with local and national decision-makers.
  • Ensure that the education system provides opportunities for children to learn about their rights and strengthen their confidence to speak out.
  • Systematically promote the rights of children to be human rights defenders, address negative attitudes and build the capacity of adults to engage meaningfully with children.

“Children need to be given spaces to work together because there is power in having
many more children defending human rights”
Child participating in Child Rights Connect & Centre for Children’s Rights Survey

States are instrumental in addressing the barriers children face. But other actors also need to step up and intensify their actions.

The UN and other international inter-governmental bodies need to ensure there are child-friendly platforms, information and accreditation for children to influence their work.

Create a virtual participation tool for children and adolescents to consider the mechanisms of the UN, amplifying their voices together in order to be heard by decision-makers at the highest levels”
Child participating in Child Rights Connect & Centre for Children’s Rights Survey

The private sector should promote and respect all children’s rights, including their rights to act as human rights defenders applying the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

Civil society organizations must recognize children as peers and partners, stand in solidarity with children, acknowledge that children can face multiple restrictions when taking civic action and defending human rights, and support them to speak out and be safe whilst doing so.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Day of General Discussion must put a spotlight on what needs to change for children to be recognized, protected and empowered as human rights defenders, as a basis for more human rights focused societies.

For more information, please contact the authors:

Lena Ingelstam, Global Programme Director, Save the Children Sweden (lena.ingelstam@rb.se), and Ulrika Cilliers, Head of Advocacy, Child Rights Governance Global Theme, Save the Children (usc@redbarnet.dk), www.savethechildren.net

Tor Hodenfield, UN Adviser and Vuka! Secretariat Coalition Coordinator, CIVICUS, tor.hodenfield@civicus.org, www.civicus.org

Beatrice Schulter, Director, Child Rights Connect, schulter@childrightsconnect.org, www.childrightsconnect.org

You can find more information about the UNCRC Day of General Discussion on the OHCHR and Child Rights Connect webpages and follow the live webcast here.

Beatrice Schulter


Child Rights Connect

Lena Ingelstam

Global Programme Director

Save The Children Sweden

Tom Hodenfield

UN Adviser and Vuka! Secretariat Coalition Coordinator


Ulrika Cilliers

Head of Advocacy, Child Rights Governance Global Theme

Save the Children