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Q&A with Joachim Theis, Adolescent Development and Participation Specialist: Children's citizenship and civil rights

© UNICEF/Holmes
Mani Lin, 12 year olds from Phonekeo Vitaya school, tells a story to the audience during international world water day held in Vientiane.

Q&A with Joachim Theis, UNICEF Adolescent Development and Participation Specialist

As the UNICEF Adolescent Development and Participation Specialist, Joachim Theis has been working with an inter-agency group, based in Bangkok, to develop a ten-chapter programme and policy guide on children’s citizenship and civil rights that will be used for advocacy in the region and beyond. Other agencies involved in this initiative include Save the Children UK, Save the Children Sweden, Plan International, World Vision, ECPAT, Knowing Children, Child Helpline International and Ashoka. Here he speaks about the need for developing children’s and young people’s citizenship and sense of civic responsibility.

Q: As a children’s participation specialist, are you trying to re-define what is meant by participation with this emphasis on children’s citizenship and civil rights?

A: The reason we’re talking about children’s civil rights and citizenship is because the term ‘participation’ has largely lost its meaning. It’s become so broad and vague and everyone understands something different by the term. In many contexts, ‘participation’ has been reduced to children involved in conferences, children as peer educators and children as journalists. In some ways, we’ve gotten stuck on this level. To get us unstuck on children’s participation, we need to take a broader look at the connections between education, health, HIV-prevention, protection and emergency programmes and children’s civil rights and citizenship. 

Children’s participation has largely been promoted as an add-on to existing programmes. We are looking at children’s citizenship and civil rights as an essential prerequisite for children to develop and to realize their rights to protection, health and education.

Q: What are you talking about when you say civil rights?

A: The Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms children’s civil rights to information, to expression, to their opinion and thought, to decision making, to form and join associations, to identity and nationality, to privacy and to protection from torture.  Our guide breaks those rights down more specifically: identity (birth and civil registration); expression of opinion at home and in schools and institutions; access to information; effective complaints mechanisms; justice for children as plaintiffs, witnesses and as perpetrators; and the protection of economic rights, such as inheritance rights.

Like all other human rights treaties, the CRC focuses on rights. It does not define children’s responsibilities. This is a limitation when we are trying to understand children’s citizenship and civil rights and link them with child and adolescent development (which puts a lot of emphasis on children’s responsibilities).

© UNICEF EAPRO/Youkonton R
Young people participate in the 7th East Asia and Pacific Ministerial Consultation on Children in Cambodia on 25 March 2005.

Q: There are still considerable pockets of poverty in this region – would greater attention to children's civil rights divert from efforts to fulfill their basic rights?

Civil rights are essential to realize other rights and the CRC recognizes the close links between civil, economic and social rights. For example, you cannot realize the right to health, which is an economic and social right, without realizing the right to information (a civil right). If you’re denied access to health information (for example, on HIV infection or about avian flu), then you can’t protect yourself from infection.

Last year, the World Bank published the World Development Report on Youth. The report includes a chapter on young people’s citizenship and highlights the importance of developing responsible and socially aware young people. This is not a luxury. It is a social and economic necessity, and most governments in the region understand this. The Chinese Government, for example, is implementing far-reaching education reforms in order to develop an innovative and creative workforce. Teachers are now expected to encourage students to ask critical questions and to develop their own thoughts.

Q: Why should it address responsibility?

A: Dominant approaches to children’s protection looks at them as helpless victims and as vulnerable beings in need of safeguarding. They do not consider children’s own ability to take actions. On the other hand, when we consider children as citizens and as having civil rights we see them as social actors who contribute to their communities societies. We are thus faced with two contradictory and competing concepts of children and of childhood.

The work on child and adolescent development shows how important it is to develop a sense of responsibility among children. The concept of citizenship and education for citizenship includes rights and responsibilities. It also requires communities and societies to create opportunities for children to contribute to their local environment through service, volunteering or other civic activity. In many developed countries, it is part of the school curriculum to do some kind of community service and students need to have that kind of experience to graduate. There’s a good reason for that; it is helping to engage young people in the ideals of civic responsibility.

Q: Does your concept attempt to broaden children’s entitlements, such as voting?

A: We’re not proposing a radical political agenda. We’re saying here’s an area of the CRC that hasn’t been fully operationalized or fully understood. The lack of attention to children’s civil rights limits children’s development, survival and protection and misses out on opportunities for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other international development commitments. We’re not saying children should vote, and we’re not saying children shouldn’t vote. We’re just saying that there is a lot that governments can gain by promoting children’s civil rights and citizenship and there’s a lot that children can gain and here are some practical ways of taking this agenda forward.

One example where children’s civil rights have been operationalized is birth registration. In the past, development agencies did not address issues of identity and registration. Then organizations like UNICEF and Plan International realized how important it is for children (and adults) to have a birth registration document in order to access education and health services, for children to be protected so they don’t get recruited as child soldiers, they are not married early and to make sure they aren’t tried as adults if they get into conflict with the law. So these agencies worked with civil registration systems in countries around the world to develop ways to register children and births and also to build up an effective civil registration system. They ran campaigns to ensure that all children are registered. This approach proved very successful. As a result, governments have greatly increased their investments in civil registration systems. Even countries like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, with serious constraints in the capacities of public institutions, have made major headway. Birth registration is an example of how children’s civil rights can be made very concrete and practical.

Child delegates from ASEAN countries at the first South East Asian Children's Conference, being held in Manila from 11-14th December, 2006

Q: Your concept is ten chapters long – what is it saying?

A: The first part of the guide defines children’s civil rights. Each of its six chapters explains what the particular civil right is about, why it is important, how it can be supported and what the government should do about it. The second part of the guide has four chapters that explain how children can exercise their citizenship in their communities and societies, through: civic engagement and community service, involvement in the media, influencing public decisions and by forming their own associations.

Q: This is not the first attempt to address children’s civil rights…

A: No, it’s not. There’s literature on children’s civil rights and on children’s right to vote. There’s a document, Children and Young People as Citizens that was published in 2003. It is based on experiences in South Asia with children’s citizenship and children in governance. There are important regional differences in the theory and practice of children’s participation. Efforts to promote children’s civil rights in Latin America and South Asia tend to be more politicized than in East Asia and the Pacific. Some of the most innovative ideas for children’s participation in the public sphere have come from the child workers movement. In India, for example, child workers have formed their own unions and have organized themselves to protect their rights and to campaign against exploitation, abuse, child marriage, the right to association and other concerns.

If you look at India or Latin America, you can see a strong indigenous movement for children’s civil rights. You don’t have a movement of that strength in East Asia and the Pacific. But you have some strong organizations in countries such as the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia and Thailand. The time is right now to move the agenda for children’s civil rights forward in this region, but it has to be done in a way that relates to how social issues are being promoted. This guide for children’s citizenship provides new ideas and opens up new ways of promoting children’s civil rights and participation. It does not prescribe how to promote children’s civil rights in the region or specific countries or agencies.

The reason we’re developing an agenda for children’s citizenship here in East Asia and the Pacific is because children’s rights agencies, such as UNICEF, are ready to take a more systematic and results-oriented approach to children’s civil rights. This initiative builds on the strong collaboration of agencies in regard to children’s participation in the Global Study on Violence Against Children. We are in the fortunate position to have an experienced group of people in Bangkok who have worked together for a long time on children’s rights.

Q: What are the benefits to governments in recognizing children’s civil rights?

A. Governments will be convinced by arguments that children have important contributions to make to society – if we take them seriously, listen to them, build their citizenship skills and their ability to take responsibility. The idea of listening to children and developing their skills to be creative and independent thinkers is also an argument that resonates with governments in the region that realize their country’s economic growth is dependent upon the quality of their human resources.

© UNICEF/Nadchatram
UNICEF Malaysia youth volunteers sharing IDS information with their peers at the "3R-UNICEF All Women's Futsal Playoffs 2006"

Q: What do you think will be the response to this discourse and debate in Asia?

A. Having a discourse about children’s civil rights in Asia will already be in itself an important achievement. I think the debates at country-level will focus on how much information and how much freedom of expression children should be granted. This is necessarily a matter of negotiation and a discussion that has to be conducted in every country. Countries with democratic systems, such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Mongolia, will continue to be at the forefront of efforts to promote children’s civil rights. But even in China and Viet Nam, the space for children’s active involvement in the public sphere is bound to expand. Fifteen years ago the agency Terre des Hommes developed a booklet that provided basic information for street children in Viet Nam. It took six years of negotiations with different government departments before the booklet could be published. Given the rapid economic and social changes in East Asia, we can be certain that the space for civil rights will continue to broaden, not least as a result of the Internet.

Q: What do you see as regional barriers to the concept?

A: One of the biggest barriers – as everywhere – is the relationship between children and adults. Commonly, children in East Asia and the Pacific are expected to be quiet in the presence of their parents – as a sign of respect. In some parts of the region, parents even believe they ’own’ their children, which can contribute to extensive violations of children’s rights, including sexual abuse and exploitation. There are particularly close links between children’s civil rights and child protection programmes. UNICEF’s regional child protection strategy recognizes the need to build strong community-based child protection systems. The respect by adults for children’s rights – including their civil rights – is an essential aspect of a protective environment.

Q: What happens next?

A. The work on children’s citizenship and civil rights helps us to define where to go next in regard to children’s rights. There is a need to better understand and research childhood. In the entire region, there is not a single research centre that studies childhood. UNICEF EAPRO has commissioned a study on children and young people’s civic engagement that looks at civic engagement, volunteering and community service, which should be available later this year. The study will help define ways to support children and young people to play a more active part in their communities and societies. Another important area for analysis and assessment is to identify practical ways for children to influence public decisions. Children also have a right to be involved in decisions that affect them. This includes public decisions about the use of resources, such as government budgets or land. The challenge is to develop practical ways for ensuring that public decisions – especially at the community level – are informed and influenced by children’s views.



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