Good morning, everyone and thank you for inviting me to be here today to talk to you about the importance of children’s rights. I’d like to begin by also acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, and paying my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to acknowledge any Indigenous guests who are present with us today.
I’m going to start by telling you a little about my role as National Children’s Commissioner. I was appointed in 2013 and I am Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner. The responsibilities of my role are set out in the Human Rights Act and I work at the Australian Human Rights Commission alongside other Human Rights Commissioners who cover areas like sex, age and race discrimination, and the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some of my key duties are to:
- Be a national advocate for the rights and interests of children and young people – this includes all children and young people up to eighteen years of age.
- Promote children’s participation in decisions that impact on them.
- Provide national leadership and coordination on child rights issues.
- Promote awareness of and respect for the rights of children and young people in Australia.
- Undertake research about children’s rights.
- Examine laws, policies and programs to ensure they protect and uphold the rights of children and young people.
A major part of my role involves submitting a yearly report to the parliament and this gives me an opportunity to alert the community to human rights issues and concerns for children and young people.
What exactly are children’s rights and why are they important?
- Children have human rights just like adults. Children also have the right to special protection because of their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.
- Our rights begin with children's rights. When we understand and enact children’s rights, we create stronger and more inclusive communities.
- The international human rights treaty that focuses specifically on children’s rights is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Australia ratified this Convention (aka the CRC) in December 1990, which means that Australia has a duty to ensure that all children in Australia enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.
Some of the guiding principles of the CRC are:
- that the best interests of the child should always act as the primary consideration
- the right to survival and development
- the right of all children to express their views freely on matters affecting them
- the right of all children to enjoy all the rights of the CRC without discrimination of any kind.
How to embed children’s rights in early childhood?
My role as National Children’s Commissioner is to help enable the realisation of children’s rights across the community, including in the early childhood system. This area of work is especially important, as we need to embed rights early into the lives of children to ensure their long-term well-being.
- There are many opportunities to embed rights across the early childhood system – in service delivery, as well as in policy and advocacy.
- Throughout my term as National Children’s Commissioner I have undertaken a range of initiatives to fulfil this goal. These have included regular consultations with children, where I’ve asked them to tell me about the things that matter to them. I also monitor the status of children’s rights in Australia as part of my reporting duties to the UN.
- I also played a role in developing a Statement of Intent on Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education and Care in collaboration with ECA to support children’s rights in early childhood education and care. The Statement outlines concrete steps that early childhood educators can take to reinforce children’s rights in their daily practice.
What does a human rights-based approach to early childhood education look like?
A human rights-based approach to early childhood education and care services is one that includes:
- promoting and protecting the rights of children and ensuring their welfare in these critical developmental years
- improving gender equality and the equal participation of women in the workforce, through supporting parents with caring responsibilities.
* This is because there are strong links between women’s employment and economic security, and the health and wellbeing of their children. Economic security has a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of mothers, a positive protective impact on children and therefore benefits for families as a whole.
- promoting and protecting the rights of children and ensuring their welfare in these critical developmental years
Article 28 of the Convention places a special emphasis on the right of all children to education, and the importance of children being active players in the learning process, rather than simply recipients of knowledge.
Article 29 then sets out the aims of education, and these aims include the development of:
- the full potential of the child in relation to their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities
- respect for human rights
- cultural identity and affiliation
- a sense of responsibility towards others, and respect for diversity
- respect for the natural environment
As leaders and educators in early childhood, you are in a position to engage with and respond to children as citizens and rights-holders from birth.
As you all know, children have identities from the moment they exist and that identity shifts and evolves from that time on, shaped by the realisation of their rights and the facilitation of these by others – family, community members, other children and educators.
In the early education sector, you and the educators that you represent, are able to witness children growing, learning and evolving before your very eyes. You see children as they are in the moment, and also in the moments that precede and follow. This kind of seeing, of genuine and deep engagement with the uniqueness of every child and the hundred languages they speak, is what a child rights approach is all about.
Children are both possessors and constructors of rights.
According to Professor Carla Rinaldi, CEO of ReggioChild in Italy: “The challenge is to create a pedagogy …able to welcome all differences that come from the uniqueness of each child, all human beings, and create a context where the differences can learn to dialogue and enrich each other.”
Adopting a child rights approach reshapes everything from the relationship between educator and student to the physical setting in which they play and learn. It means new forms of educator training and measurements of success. It is moving the voices, rights and interests of children to the centre of education and care systems.
One of the resources that the Australian Human Rights Commission has developed specifically for early childhood educators is called Building Belonging. These resources are designed to support educators to encourage respect for cultural diversity and to give them guidance in how best to address instances of racial prejudice in early childhood settings.
Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child protects the right of a child to live without discrimination of any kind. It is therefore important that young children in Australia today grow up with an appreciation and respect for the diversity of cultures, races and ethnicities that surround them. By promoting an understanding of difference and diversity, early childhood educators can assist children and their families to build positive relationships with their local communities.
We commenced this project by undertaking a survey of early childhood educators, in which we asked them about their perceptions and experiences of cultural diversity.
When asked to identify the types of challenges that arose from educating children about cultural diversity or responding to prejudice, educators identified three key areas:
- lack of knowledge,
- lack of confidence, and
- negative educator attitudes.
Around a third of respondents talked about educators’ fear of “getting it wrong” or addressing the topic of cultural diversity in a stereotypical or tokenistic manner (i.e. lack of confidence).
To design the resources, we then worked in consultation with representatives from the early childhood sector as well as a number of other key stakeholders, including Reconciliation Australia, SNAICC, Early Childhood Australia, Sydney Daycare Network, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, and the Ethnic Community Services Co-operative.
The result is a comprehensive toolkit of resources which includes an ebook, song with actions, educator guide, posters and lesson plans, focussed on encouraging children to respect cultural diversity.
I’d now like to talk to you about a major project that I have been involved with over the past two years: the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.
Since 1990, when Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, much has been achieved in terms of protecting children’s rights: but even in mainstream areas, we still fall short. The Royal Commission in Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was a harsh reminder of how children’s needs and rights have been ignored in particular contexts, and of the profound and long-lasting harms that can result from this.
The breadth and depth of evidence, research and harrowing personal stories that emerged from the Royal Commission were cumulated into a final report that was published in December 2017. This report included an entire volume on how to make institutions child safe and recommendations about implementing child safe elements in organisations.
At the Australian Human Rights Commission, my team and I have been working in partnership with the Commonwealth Department of Social Services to develop the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The Principles received endorsement from the Council of Australian Governments earlier this year. We have also designed a suite of tools and resources to assist organisations implement the principles and build child safe cultures both in physical and online environments.
The National Principles will drive the implementation of a child safe culture across all sectors that provide services to children. They will apply to all organisations with a duty of care to children and young people, regardless of their location or sector, from volunteer playgroups and local sporting clubs to recreation, education and care services and churches. While the standards are likely to be voluntary at least in the first instance, organisations will of course still need to adhere to any legal requirements and state and territory regulations.
The National Principles will be a pivotal guide and a benchmark for leadership, governance and promoting child safe cultures in the years ahead. This requires a whole of organisation approach including management boards adopting, promoting and supporting policies, processes and practices around child safety and wellbeing across all operational areas of an organisation
Embedding child safe cultures in an organisation requires vision, leadership and the active promotion of the rights of children. Importantly, it is also about the small things in terms of a staff member or volunteer’s daily interaction with a child:
- Do they know what rights a child has?
- Does a child know their rights?
- Can the child have routine opportunities to have their voice heard?
- In terms of the cultural safety of an organisation: How welcomed and included do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families feel?
- What steps is your organisation taking to support parents and carers to feel comfortable and informed to ask questions about child safety and wellbeing, to know that there is a policy for this and know about the complaints processes in the organisation, to seek their feedback and ensure there are opportunities for their participation in the organisation’s direction or activities?
In our consultations so far, children and young people have been vocal about the promises and commitments they think organisations should be keeping and how organisations can be safe, inclusive and respectful. They spoke broadly of the respect and dignity young people should be treated with, how organisations should be more genuine and responsible, and how injustice and unfairness should be addressed. Overall, children and young people want to be heard, which was expressed plainly by one young person who said: “I think that organisations should respect everyone and everyone should be treated equally”.
Children and young people have said so far that organisations should:
- treat everyone equally and fairly
- help with hopes and dreams
- make places happy and comfortable
- be good at what they do
- provide access to technology and care when needed
- understand needs of individual children
The National Principles collectively show that a child safe organisation consciously and systematically:
- Creates an environment where children’s safety and wellbeing is the centre of thought, values and actions
- Places emphasis on genuine engagement and valuing of children
- Creates conditions that reduce the likelihood of harm to children and young people
- Creates conditions that increase the likelihood of identifying any harm
- Responds to any concerns, disclosures, allegations or suspicions of harm.
As you can see from the wheel of child safety, starting from the top and moving right, the first four principles emphasise getting the organisational culture right, including a respect for equity and diversity as well as children learning about and enacting their rights.
Principles 5, 6 and 7 are about the processes for recruiting, training and supporting staff and dealing with concerns, complaints and incidents.
The final three principles are about the environment in which the organisation operates, including the online environment.
Any effective work in the chid safe organisation space requires a whole of organisation approach. The whole organisation – from the top down and bottom up - needs to go on a child safety and wellbeing journey to achieve genuine and lasting change.
For the early education sector, this is not going to be a process that you will be starting from scratch. I am keenly aware that many of you here today, who work in early education, are very knowledgeable about child rights, child safety and the importance of children’s wellbeing. Australia has much to be proud of in terms of its early education services, and I often point to the early education sector as one that been at the forefront of adopting a child-rights approach to the care and education of Australian children.
As the Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated, “a child-rights based approach requires a paradigm shift towards respecting and promoting the human dignity and the physical and psychological integrity of children as rights-bearing individuals rather than perceiving them primarily as “victims”.” 
A rights-based approach means that we must not only listen to children, but also provide them with opportunities to raise any concerns that they might have about their safety. We also need to be skilled in recognising the signs of violence and abuse, and be prepared to take appropriate action when necessary. And, of course, it also means that as educators and carers we need to model respectful relationships between our colleagues.
The National Principles are an opportunity not just to address the human rights violations that were highlighted in the Royal Commission’s work, but should also be a catalyst for generating greater respect for children’s rights in Australia and beyond. (And I’d encourage all of you to stay connected with developments in this space by visiting the child safe organisations website and signing up to receive updates through our newsletter.)
As professionals working with children, each of us can play a unique role in helping children to become happy, healthy, independent and resilient. We can also help them to develop the courage they need to speak up and be open about their feelings, experiences and needs. And, we can play a role in ensuring that they have a platform and a place in which they can speak up and out, and feel safe in doing so. In this way, we’ll be able to create environments that are not only safe for children, but which also support them to flourish to their full potential.
I would like to thank you all for listening and hope that you will leave today feeling passionate about how you can all become child rights champions and how children’s rights can be more deeply embedded in the important work that we do for and with children.
 Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 13 (2011), The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence: https://violenceagainstchildren.un.org/content/crccgc13