Why Do Children Need Specific Rights?

In this morning’s Irish Times Vincent Browne writes that Saturday’s Children’s Rights Referendum is an unnecessary stunt by the government. He dismisses the claim that children’s rights aren’t recognised in the existing constitution as “shameless nonsense,” arguing that:

Children as citizens of the State are conferred with as much in the way of rights as anybody else in article 40.3.1, which states: “The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.” The proposed change makes no difference at all legally but it conveys a cosy feeling that we care about children.

This argument, while not uncommon, is very obviously incorrect. Children are ineligible to vote, are prohibited from holding public office,  cannot own property, and cannot work to make reasonable provision for their domestic needs. To suggest that they are “conferred with as much in the way of rights as anyone else” is ludicrous.

Of course, there are good reasons for that – I’m not arguing for Baby TDs or child labour. However, because children’s limited agency forces them into dependence on others for access to basic needs and because the constitution denies them the rights that allow citizens personal independence, it is entirely consistent that  in the same constitution special provision  be made for their protection.

There are legal impediments to children escaping situations of violence or abuse – that they cannot be independent through work, that they can’t gain ownership over a place to live and the person responsible for the violence is very often also responsible for the child. Adults can independently escape from abusive situations, though there are obviously significant barriers to doing so. Children can’t. Given that the constitution incapacitates them, it should also affirm the state’s responsibility to protect them.

Children do not have avenues to expressing themselves effectively.  Adults, when their needs are not being met, can vote, can take legal action, can appeal legal decisions to higher courts and can involve themselves in the political system. Those avenues to being heard are universally available to those over the age of 18. In cases pertaining to children a decent judge will consider the view of the child, a good social worker will interact with the child to assess his or her opinions and preferences, a guardian ad litem (in the very rare cases when they are provided) can represent the voice of the child in legal proceedings. But these protections are dependent on circumstance and luck. This amendment provides children with a universal entitlement to speak and be heard in the discussions that shape their lives.

Many people I’ve spoken to are concerned that more power is being given to the state, which has failed so monumentally in the past. That concern is valid, but I feel that if you look at instances of state failure, in a huge number of them the problem was that organs of the state didn’t know what to do or were given too much freedom to do as they pleased.

Social workers and judges who left children in situations of appalling abuse weren’t criticised or held to a higher standard, because in the current constitution that standard doesn’t exist. It establishes that the family is good and it establishes that abuse is bad, but everything else is remarkably hazy. By making these things explicit, we make the responsibilities of the state explicit. Therefore, if they fail there isn’t the same scope to sweep it under the rug and hope for the best. Instead, if the state fails children (and it will at times) it can be more easily challenged and held to account, right up to the highest court in the land.

I’ve only addressed one element of the discussion, you can read analysis of the others at Yes for Children.  Please support this referendum, and please please please get out and vote on Saturday. The higher the turnout, the stronger the mandate, the better for children.

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The Ego and John Waters

I watched ‘The Help’ last night, in which the main character, an aspiring journalist, is told to write about what shocks her. In contrast, in the last week, established Irish journalists have clearly been instructed to just write what shocks.

I had started to breathe normally again after my Delaney-induced rage, when this afternoon I read John Waters in the Irish Times. It’s always a blow when the Times runs these things too; it’s worse if your best friend talks about you behind your back than if the girl/guy you hated anyway does it.

However, if anything can be said for Delaney, it’s that he made no effort to hide his ignorance. Waters, on the other hand, falls into the old trap of believing that intelligence is measured by word length. It’s ironic really. The premise of his argument is that “our public discussions are remarkably restricted where it comes to pursuing comprehension of political events” and yet in most sentences he uses more syllables than I’ve eaten hot dinners. Take the following:

Political correctness and other unwritten strictures debar the possibility of deeper understandings concerning the state of the collective psyche and the archetypal yearnings that impinge on collective representation of individual democratic choices.

What Waters wants us to believe is that the point he’s making here is too esoteric and obscure for our feeble minds to handle. In reality, his sentence means nothing. He’s trying to disguise that like every other jaded and unimaginative hack he’s writing about political correctness gone MAD!

You know what? I like political correctness. If that’s the term you want to use for my not being told in the national newspapers that all of my life goals are invalid. Because it’s not about being an exceptional woman, Waters tells us. Rather, we should learn to be good at “being women in a public world ordered to male responses.” We have to lower the tone of our voices, to take the colour out of our wardrobes and the emotion out of our responses. Otherwise, as with Mary Davis and Dana, people will know within ten seconds that we lack the basic “masculine” qualities essential to leadership.

What are those qualities? According to Waters, what we want is that our patres patriae “be wise yet genial, dependable and restrained, strongly empathetic but frank, prudent but unafraid, stoical but unfanatical, tough yet patient, thoughtful but not incontinent of speech…we feel safer with leaders who quietly require that we postpone gratification and commit ourselves to sacrifice for our own long-term good. These are the father values erased from our surface culture by 40 years of aggressive feminist agitation.”

Call me crazy, but over the last 40 years (and particularly the Celtic Tiger/Fianna Fáil years) our political fathers have been seriously short of dependability, restraint, empathy, and prudence. They were particularly poor at delaying any kind of gratification at all. Hence the corruption, the abuse, the cover-ups, the discrimination and the economic collapse.

In fact, throughout the political shambles of the last 21 years, our two Presidents unfalteringly upheld the dignity of their office, placing Ireland among the great nations of the world with their devotion to Human Rights and tolerance. In doing so they transformed the presidency from a old-folks home for the doddery grandfathers of Irish politics, to a dynamic institution, capable of shaping the ideals and morals of the nation.

Consider Mary Robinson’s visit to Somalia in 1992, when she so memorably cried during a press conference.  The overwhelming power of that moment came precisely from her emotion, her lack of restraint, her femininity. To suggest that as a people we have abandoned the values they upheld is an affront to their legacy. To suggest, as Waters does, that they aren’t exceptional women is laughable. What’s more, it paints a pretty hopeless picture for the rest of us.

Still, as restrictive and offensive it is to cast women as shrill, flighty and unceasingly maternal, Waters also does a great disservice to men. He points out that emotional restraint “is among the male qualities feminism has most energetically sought to disparage.” That’s because repression is as damaging for men as it is for women.

Men shouldn’t be forced in roles like hunter-gather, wrestler and firm, distant father. We shouldn’t insist that they be stoic, uncompromisingly masculine and look like they’re good in a scrum. Sometimes, as Mary Robinson shows us, the only appropriate reaction to a situation is to cry. Sometimes it’s to laugh hysterically, or to dance (Hugh Grant in Love Actually, anyone?), or to otherwise express the strongest sadness, joy, or love. That’s what humans do. It’s what our leaders, sometimes, should do. And it’s certainly something that men should be free to do.

So, Mr. Waters, in the interests of facilitating deeper individual understandings, liberated from the repressive collective super-structures of gender expectation, please desist from condensing the conscience of leadership into restrictive orthodoxies.

In simpler terms, since you’re so keen to comprehend, get some manners and some sense.