My experience of teaching child rights is within the context of South Sudan, the newest country in the world, which ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)  in January 2015 but had already incorporated the importance of the UNCRC in its comprehensive Child Act of 2008. The country had suffered many years of war as a united nation with what is now the Republic of the Sudan, which finally ended in 2005 with a comprehensive peace agreement. This led to a referendum in which the people of the south overwhelmingly voted to secede and create a new country. Sadly, in 2013 war broke out again in the newly established nation, once again putting vulnerable children and others in great danger.
Context of the case study
Due to the wars, we heard time and time again how the rich fabric of society had been stripped away and many of the positive cultural aspects of bringing up children lost. In the area in which we worked Christianity was the most prominent faith, with many in villages attending church each week and ascribing to the faith. Having seen how child rights were being taught by many nongovernmental organisations, we realised that faith and rights could not be separated, they had to be explored together, while also keeping the culture central. It was concerning that so often child rights seemed to be introduced as something really quite separate. Communities seemed to be, more often than not, “informed of” the rights, rather than having them shared in a way that encourages discussion, wrestling and exploration of the cultural setting, noting how each right could fit within that setting, which things may be causing harm and may need to be modified, and what needed to be celebrated and honoured.
Further concern was that as rights were shared, there was no discussion about the responsibility children themselves held (or adults to ensure that these rights could be upheld), and indeed, one of the concerns of the adults was that children were beginning to expect things and give nothing back. One way of educating about child rights was via the radio – a brilliant way of passing a message to many people, but a medium that allows no guided discussion or wrestling with concepts. It can be heard in different ways by different people – there is no opportunity to rephrase things to help understanding. It also appeared to leave some adults confused about their authority, and unsure how to respond to a child who is demanding things – even knowing if what is being demanded is actually a right at all.
Beginning to address the balance
Samuel, my South Sudanese co-worker, and I worked together on developing training sessions to address these gaps as we understood them to be. We worked with both adults and children in the communities, helping children in schools to understand their rights and how they link with their responsibilities, as well as sensitising the adults to their roles within this, and how they can ensure that they are upholding the children’s rights while guiding children to understand what their rights are. During this, there were times when the children and adults came together to discuss issues that the children felt were problematic, raising discussions and agreeing action to make improvements. However, due to the constraints of this case study, this will not be discussed further. We were aware that the communities had probably heard about child rights already through the radio, but we were not aware that any previous NGOs had offered trainings in the communities we worked in.
We commenced our work in the communities with Bible studies on the four categories of rights, asking the question “What does the Bible lead us to believe God’s heart is for children in the area of protection, participation, survival and development?”, looking at the stories of Moses, Hagar and Ishmael, and the John 6 version of the feeding of the 5,000, among others. These proved to be important foundations for the communities, who expressed appreciation that they were also learning more from the Bible in general as they studied together. Once the Bible studies had all been completed a three-day training was held, exploring many of the different rights. Participants were asked what their thoughts were about child rights. We were blessed with honest answers – one pastor said that he did not like them. He said that before these were shared over the radio, children were well behaved, but since they had heard about their rights, they were becoming disobedient, dressing inappropriately and not listening to their elders. Others in the group agreed with him. The training included exploring which categories some of the individual rights fitted into (to help people understand what the rights actually are), the difference between a need (right) and a want, the purpose of child rights (to help a child survive, develop and reach their full potential) and responsibilities linked to rights.
At the end of the three days, participants evaluated the course. The same pastor who had been so against child rights said, “We are encouraged with this explanation of rights; we want our children to survive, develop and reach their full potential. If this is how you understand them, why have you not been to train us earlier?”
We were also invited to write and teach a module to student teachers in the third year of their studies. These students were likely to be the head teachers of schools once they graduated with their diplomas, so our opportunity was an amazing one: to be able to influence those in schools that, through Parent Teacher Associations for example, would also have the ability to disseminate a healthier view of rights and responsibilities.
For the last five years (bar 2016 as security was too bad to reach the college) a two-week module has been taught in a deeper way to the communities, with students of many different tribes, often with different cultures within those groups, discussing, disagreeing with each other, agreeing things that need change, recognising things that need to be celebrated and getting passionate about the children in their villages, schools and land. Each year, without fail, these students have discussed – and argued about – the same issue: clothes. The students, in small groups, make lists of everything they think children need and want to survive, develop and reach their full potential – then they put them into the corresponding piles for each group, before sharing with the larger group, and agreeing corporately which pile each should go in. Without fail, each year, “clothes” has initially gone into the need pile, before one brave student plucks up the courage to challenge this. The first student to do so was the one who made the greatest impact on me.
Tanabor is from the Republic of the Sudan, and indeed is from a community who would consider some nakedness normal. He gained my attention and then said, “Clothes are a want, not a need. I studied to P2 [primary year two] totally as naked as the day I was born and it did me no harm.” Drawing a deep breath, I inwardly told myself repeatedly not to let my own culture get in the way of this discussion before saying slowly, “Well, in my culture they are a need. In the winter you would die very quickly with no clothes; for us, they are a need.”
“Ahhhh, for us it is hot – for us, clothes are a want.” A discussion continued after this with students giving their different opinions, but every year group has finally concluded that clothes may be a need OR a want, depending on the cultural situation and assuming that nakedness does not lead to abuse in that community.
Child rights, ratified within UN countries, aim to safeguard children, allowing them to survive, develop and reach their full potential. Allowing discussion and time to grapple, and even disagree with, different concepts gives people the chance to challenge their own beliefs and opinions, giving room for change. Local culture must also always be considered; the right may be the same the world over, but the way it is worked out may look a little different depending on the cultural setting.
While working with the children in a community, helping them to advocate for their rights, adults must also be given time to discuss, disagree, wrestle and express opinions, exploring how child rights might fit in with their culture. Misunderstandings between the children and adults in any one community would hopefully then be avoided.
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 See https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights (accessed 18 January 2019).