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Playing our part: advocating for children’s rights

Children's Rights

Megan Mitchell
National Children’s Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission


Network of Community Activities
40th Anniversary Annual General Meeting
Tuesday 6 May 2014





Thank you, Robyn and Cathy, and good morning everyone.

It is an honour to be here today with you at the Network of Communities 40th Anniversary Annual General Meeting.

Can I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today, and paying my respects to the elders past and present.

In coming here today, we celebrate 40 years of hard work and dedication by the Network of Community Activities, to the promotion of children’s rights in Australia. For 40 years now, Network has worked to assist Australian communities to develop the skills they need to deliver the best possible outcomes for children and young people.

Thank you to Robyn Monro Miller, Patricia Gooley, and to all the staff at Network, for inviting me here today, a day that should be recognised as a fantastic organisational birthday. Unfortunately it is now some time ago that I celebrated my 40th birthday.

Guiding Principles of the Convention

The provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child help to drive the work and values of Network.

The provisions of the Convention set the fundamental standards necessary to ensuring that our children are able to grow up happy and healthy, to participate in full and meaningful ways. It recognises that children have the same rights as adults but that they also have special rights due to their vulnerabilities as children. The CRC is the most widely ratified of all international treaties. And by signing up to the Convention 24 years ago, Australia committed to uphold the rights of children.

Children’s Rights are not earned, they are owned. They exist as part of the human condition.

Four guiding principles underpin the rights of children articulated in the Convention:

Protection and survival - children have a right to life and to be protected from abuse, violence, exploitation and neglect;

Participation – children are fully persons with the right to express their views and participate in decisions concerning them;

Development – children are entitled to grow up in a nurturing family and community environment, with an adequate standard of living to support their full development; and

Non-discrimination – all children deserve respect and the protection of their fundamental human rights regardless of their race, culture, sex, age, religion or disability.

Article 12 of the Convention

A child’s right to have their views respected is a gateway to all of the other rights set out in the Convention. It is essential to ensuring that children can have a say in the decisions that affect them, and to be active agents in their own lives.

As Article 12, one of the four guiding principles of the Convention, sets out -“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

This is a strong statement of our obligations to children and to ensure their voices are heard. Unfortunately, however, too often the meaningful participation of children and young people is not understood or accepted. Many decisions continue to be made about children without even talking to them or thinking about the impact on them.

And encouraging children’s participation in the decisions that affect them is a priority that is deeply embedded in my own duties as National Children’s Commissioner.

My Role as National Children’s Commissioner
I would like to briefly recap a little on my role, which is set out in the Human Rights Act, because I see my position as a resource that belongs to all of you, and of course, to the children of Australia. My duties include:

  • To be a national advocate for and promote awareness of the rights and interests of children
  • To embed mechanisms that ensure a focus on children’s interests and rights
  • To provide national leadership and coordination on child rights issues
  • To undertake research and educational programs that promote the enjoyment and exercise of children’s rights
  • To examine laws, policies and programs to determine whether they protect the rights of children
  • To regularly report on children’s enjoyment of their rights

Of course, I am unable to perform these all duties on my own.

As a national advocate for children, I need the support that all of you play in advocating for children and their rights. This advocacy can take many forms, ranging from promoting the rights of all children, or particular groups of vulnerable children, or for individual children you work with. But for all of us, playing our part in advocating for children has a number of common features.

Advocacy is about making our views heard, and acting on others’ behalves to make their views heard. It is both assertive and collaborative in nature. And, often times, it is about convincing others to do something in a different way. Because of this it can sometimes be hard, it takes energy and perseverance.

The Big Banter

I’m sure many of you are aware that from June-September of last year, I travelled across the country, undertaking a national listening tour which I called the Big Banter, as one way of doing my bit to give life to Article 12, and asking children and young people directly about what I can do to help make their lives better.
I met with well over 1,000 children face-to-face, and heard from a further 1,400 children online and through the post. I have also spoken with hundreds of children’s advocates.

I’d like to take the opportunity today to share with you just a few of the many responses I received from children.

High School in Canberra, ACT

Young people at a Canberra High School said they wanted to live in a world where:

People have respect for each other;

Children and young people are heard;

There is freedom from judgement, so people can be who they want to be;

Everyone is treated as intelligent individuals; and where

People who you trust make you safe.

Western Australian Primary School

Children at a remote Western Australian Primary School told me that they would like a world with:

No swearing;

No bad people;

No pollution;

No drugs; and

Where you can go to school every day.

Out-of-School-Hours Care Centre, SA

Children at an out of school hours care centre in South Australia said they wanted to live in a world where:

Everyone was safe;

There were no guns;

Everyone had a place to live; and

There was a peace code so that everyone speaks kindly and is a peace maker.

Aboriginal Children in Victoria

Aboriginal Children and young people in Victoria said that they wanted:

No bullying;

No racism;

More Aboriginal activities;

More Aboriginal young people on television shows and in magazines;

Fair treatment;

To be comfortable in your own home;

To live in a safe world and environment; and

To have a good future.

Primary School in Tasmania

Children at a Primary School in Tasmania told me that life would be better if there was:

No discrimination;

Reduced costs;

No pollution or smoking; and

Everybody was treated equally.

They also wanted a world with:

No adults;

Rivers of gooey caramel; and

Flying hobbits.

Postcards from Children and Young People

Children and young people also sent postcards to me to let me know what would make life better for children and young people in Australia.

Here are some of the sentiments expressed:

“We got to play more at home and at school with our friends” (5 year old boy)

“More family time. Mum explained that Sundays used to be a quiet day with no shops open or sport played. Maybe we need a national family day.” (10 year old girl)

“More trees and more fun and more parks and more slides and more places for kids.” (7 year old boy)

“We could feel safe, especially to and from school. Educate the public to be alert” (10 year old girl)

“The young people were given more opportunity to participate in government policy” (15 year old male)

“There wasn’t such a big division between the rich and the poor” (10 year old girl)

“There were more easily accessible help programs for youth” (17 year old female)
Online Survey Responses from Children and Young People

Children and young people completing my online survey were asked: What makes them most happy. This slide contains some of their answers:

  • - Seeing my friends and family happy
  • - I’m playing with my friends at school
  • - I’m living happily with the people I love
  • - I’m helping other people
  • - I’m reading, writing and laughing
  • - I’m doing art and craft
  • - My family is healthy and happy

As these responses demonstrate, children and young people understand the good and bad parts of the world in which they live, have a strong sense of fairness, have great imaginations and an ongoing commitment to fun. They want to be safe, to be with their families, to play with their friends, to express themselves freely, and to be free from violence, aggression and bullying. And they definitely want to be respected and listened to.

Emerging Themes from the Big Banter

These children’s priorities are reflected in the five key themes outlined in my 2013 Children’s Rights Report which I tabled in Parliament in December last year.

  • Freedom from violence, abuse and neglect;
  • The opportunity to thrive;
  • Engaged citizenship;
  • Action and accountability; and
  • The right to be heard.

These themes are, I believe, central to ensuring the maximum protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of our children, and will continue to guide my work program throughout my term.

I want to take the opportunity to say a little more about the right to participate and be heard.

The Benefits of Child Participation
There are many studies which reinforce the positive impacts of listening to children.

Recent reports by UNICEF outline just some of the reasons we should listen to the voices of children and young people:[1]

  • - Leads to better decisions, as children and young people have a wealth of knowledge which is unique to their situation;
  • - Enables children to be better protected by teaching them about their rights and responsibilities;
  • - Increases the likelihood of continued child participation, where adults who experience the significance of children’s contributions are more likely to strengthen opportunities for future child participation;
  • - Provides important developmental benefits for children and young people, by allowing them to be active participants in their societies; and
  • - Strengthens our commitment to, and understanding of, democracy. Children and young people can gain respect for their own views, and discover the importance of respecting the views of others.

Similarly, a 2010 report by the UK Department for International Development pointed to the benefits to young people when institutions acknowledged the role and importance of child and youth participation, including:[2]

  • - Improved skills, income and employment outcomes;
  • - Greater sustainability of new and existing economic activities;
  • - Improved health;
  • - Enhanced civil society engagement, including reduced violence and crime; and
  • - Increased investments in continuing education by young people and their families.

Given all this, how can we ensure that we, as adults, are being effective advocates for the rights of our children and their voices?

One type of children's advocate typically gives voice to an individual or group whose concerns and interests are not being heard. They will try to prevent children from being harmed and may try to obtain justice for those who have already been injured in some way. A child advocate may also seek to ensure that children have access to positive influences or services which will benefit their lives such as education, childcare and proper parenting.

Another form of child advocacy happens at the policy level and aims at changing the policies or practices of governments or service providers. This can also encompass changing community attitudes. These advocates do lobbying, research, pursue legal remedies and engage in other types of policy change techniques.

There are independent advocates like me and state Commissioners, Guardians and Ombudsmen who support and represent the concerns and voices of children.

And still other child advocates exist in school, community, and home settings, and work on an individual, group or governmental level to protect and nurture children.

But no matter which part of the system you work in I believe good child advocates possess certain characteristics, which I have summarised on this next slide.


- Child-centred. They are interested in the child or children’s needs and views. They listen to children and try to help others see through the eyes of the child
- Helpful. They aim to translate child rights concepts into practice and in practical ways. They understand the opportunities and constraints around them, and seek out solutions that will work in those environments
- Informed. They understand children’s rights, and the rationale behind them, and can articulate this to others, including to children
- Loud. They clearly articulate what needs to be done and why, and ensure others are clear about it too.
- Determined. They take action that shows in real terms what a child rights focus looks like on the ground. They ensure that the systems around children are transparent and accountable, including what they do themselves. They never give up.

And my inspiration: From a child participation perspective, I believe we must first ensure that children and young people are aware of their position as rights holders. The vast majority of the children and young people I spoke with during the Big Banter were not aware that children even have rights, let alone what those rights are.

Child-Friendly Version of My 2013 Report

I recently launched a child-friendly version of my 2013 Children’s Rights Report to Parliament, in which I outlined the views and experiences of children obtained throughout the Big Banter, as well as the key themes and recommendations which emerged for me.

I hope that this will be a helpful resource for children because it explains in plain English what my role is as National Children’s Commissioner, what children around Australia told me, and what the main human rights issues facing children are. You can access this report on my website – at – and it would be fantastic if you could help spread this resource throughout your networks.

The Commission has also partnered with UNICEF and Plan International Australia, as members of the Child Rights Taskforce, to develop a child-friendly version of the 2012 Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This resource will be available in the next few months.
We must also ensure that we are genuinely involving children in issues that affect them. As you have seen, their views and experiences provide a rich source of wisdom.

And we need to make sure that we encourage organisations and individuals to systematically involve children in decisions affecting them, through information, education, guidelines or perhaps in some cases legislative requirements.

Administrative Fairness

In this context, we need to make sure that we have complaints mechanisms, information and feedback processes for children that are accessible and responsive to their needs. The application of principles of administrative fairness is an essential part of democratic governance and societal health. Without these principles and the administrative systems that support them, it is easier for breaches of basic human rights to happen.

Complaints and other systems that empower children to raise concerns are particularly important for protecting the safety and well-being of vulnerable groups of children. These are children who may not have trusted adults to advocate on their behalf and may be at risk of abuse, violence and exploitation. Improving the accessibility of complaints and judicial systems is a strong focus of my forward work plan.

Suicide and Self-Harm

Before I leave you today, I’d like to speak briefly about a major project on which I will be focusing this year.

I am currently undertaking a targeted investigation examining how children and young people under 18 years of age can better be protected from intentional self-harm and suicide.

Addressing self-harm and suicide relates to all five themes outlined in my 2013 report, and is a matter of serious urgency and scale.

The latest available data from 2012 shows that intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death among Australian children and young people aged 15 to 24.[3] In the same year there were over 10,000 incidents involving young people in the same age bracket which resulted in hospital admission.[4]

We also know that many more children and young people intentionally self-harm than present to hospital. In 2012, the Kids Helpline responded to 15,887 contacts by children and young people aged 5 to 25 who were assessed to have self-injury and self-harming behaviours.[5] In the same year, Kids Helpline also facilitated 9,313 counseling sessions with children and young people aged 5 to 25 who were assessed by the counselor as having thoughts of suicide.[6]

Certain groups of children and young people are more vulnerable to self-harming behaviours than others. A recent survey by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, called Growing Up Queer, highlighted the high rates of bullying and self-harming among young LGBTI people, with 33% reported having harmed themselves, and 16% having attempted suicide.[7]

And we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people 15-19 years old are over five times more likely to die by suicide than other young Australians.[8]

This project will involve a review of current research, targeted consultations and roundtables with experts, as well as hearing from children and young people directly.
A Call for Submissions for this investigation has also been released, with submissions being sought from all interested individuals, government, private and non-government organisations. I’d like to encourage anyone in the room today who may wish to provide a submission to please do so. The submission guidelines can be found on the Human Rights Commission website, under the Children’s Rights section.

The findings of this investigation will be reported in my 2014 Statutory Report to Parliament.

It is my hope that through this project we can learn about how we can better prevent, monitor and respond to intentional self-harm among Australian children and young people.


In concluding I know that many of you advocate on behalf of children and their rights every day in the work that you do.

I acknowledge that there can be a range of barriers to be an effective advocate for child rights. You might feel you don’t have the energy, time or enough knowledge. You might think that you won’t have much impact or be taken seriously. You might think that you could be seen as being a trouble maker and that you will be a lone voice.

But I invite each and every one of you to take what you already do just that little bit further, and become a true champion for child rights. Think about the opportunities you have to change how you go about your own role and how your own agency operates. Do a little litmus test on how child centred your workplace is, and what could be changed to make it more child-friendly and child-inclusive.

If we don’t speak up, take a stand or point things out, it will be assumed that everything is ok. And everything will stay the same.

And by speaking up as a champion for child rights you will soon find that you are not alone, but instead part of what I would like to one day be able to refer to as a movement that was the game changer - a movement that made a significant difference to realisation of the rights of children in Australia.

It’s a pleasure to have been invited to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you today. Happy Birthday once again to Network, and thank you for your great work in helping to enrich the lives of Australia’s children. I wish you many more years of continued success.

Thank you.




[1] Promoting Children’s Participation in Democratic Decision Making, UNICEF, (Lansdowne,
G.), Florence, 2001, pgs 4-7; Florence, 2001, pgs 4-7; S Asker & A Gero, ‘The Role of Child and Youth Participation in Development Effectiveness’ (2012), pg.15.

[2] S Asker & A Gero, ‘The Role of Child and Youth Participation in Development Effectiveness’ (2012), pg.5.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Causes of Death, Australia, 2012, Catalogue Number 3303.0 (2014), table 1.3, line 40. At… (viewed 11 April 2014).
[4] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian hospital statistics 2011-12, National tables for external causes of injury or poisoning (part 1), Catalogue Number HSE 134 (2013), tables 3 and 4. At (viewed 11 April 2014).
[5] Kids Helpline, 2012 Overview: Issues Concerning Children and Young People (2013), p 55. At… (viewed 11 April 2014).
[6] Kids Helpline, note 9, p 54.
[7] Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Growing Up Queer (2014), p 5.
[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics. note 1, Age. At… (viewed 27 March 2014).

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner