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Realising child rights in the early years

Children's Rights

Closing speech

Infant and Early Childhood Social and Emotional Wellbeing Conference 2013

National Convention Centre, Canberra


1. Acknowledgments

Thank you, Lance, for that kind introduction.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and other Aboriginal people here today.

Thank you to ARACY and AAIMHI for inviting me to speak at the closing of the conference. While my schedule has prevented me from attending the previous days’ activities, I understand you have enjoyed a very interesting and stimulating range of workshops and speakers, from Australia and around the world.

And, of course, the key message overall is that what happens in the early years has a significant impact on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing, now and into the future.

2. The importance of the early years for child rights

It is also a critical period for the realisation of children’s rights, as recognised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The UN Committee points out that during this time young children:

  • experience the most rapid period of growth and change during the human lifespan
  • form strong emotional attachments to their parents or other caregivers
  • establish their own important relationships with children of the same age, as well as with younger and older children
  • actively make sense of the physical, social and cultural dimensions of the world they inhabit.

The UN Committee also point out that young children’s earliest years are the foundation for their physical and mental health, emotional security, cultural and personal identity and developing competencies

Young children’s experiences of growth and development vary according to their individual nature, as well as their gender, living conditions, family organisation, care arrangements and education systems.

And their experiences of growth are powerfully shaped by cultural beliefs about their needs and proper treatment and about their active role in family and community.[1]

3. Early action makes a difference

What the UN Committee says affirms what most of us know - that the early years are a critical window of opportunity for early action to help children survive and thrive, especially for those children at risk.

And for large numbers of Australian children these risks are all too real. No doubt you will have been exposed to a range of statistics over the last few days. I wanted to highlight just a few today that point to the reality of those risks for our children.

For example,

  • There has been an 18% increase in substantiated abuse or neglect since 2008, with children 0-4 the most likely to be subject of substantiation. [2]
  • For 59% of women experiencing partner violence, children had been a witness to the violence.[3]
  • 22% of four and five year old children are developmentally vulnerable on one or more AEDI domains.[4]

Being subject to abuse and neglect, experiencing or witnessing violence, sub-optimal learning and caring environments are just some of the early experiences of infants and children that have life-long negative consequences for emotional, social and physical wellbeing.

Here in Australia, while limited, there are certainly some excellent examples of early interventions designed to reduce these risks and turn these kinds of statistics around.

As an example, in Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia, where we recently visited, the Fitzroy Valley Futures Early Childhood Development Sub-Committee works collaboratively across disciplines to support local families and children in the home and in community settings with literacy, numeracy, parenting, and access to health and other essential services.

Also in Fitzroy Crossing, the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre partners with local health, education and child service providers in the Marulu Strategy to drive initiatives in the community to prevent and respond to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, through research, education, parenting and antenatal support, and alcohol supply restrictions. Both these examples are characterised by interdisciplinary cooperation, community engagement and local empowerment.

And there is emerging research to show the long term benefits of early action. ‘Acting Early, Changing Lives’, a recent report by the Benevolent Society, reports on five early intervention programs in North America, aimed at children from the most disadvantaged families and communities.

The report shows that those who participated in early intervention, and whose parents received extra support with parenting, were more likely to finish school and find higher paying jobs, and were less likely to be involved in crime, compared with those children who did not receive extra support.[5]

The Benevolent Society Report also examines the social and economic benefits of early intervention. On the latter, it reports on the dramatic cost benefits of early intervention programs in North America that target the most disadvantaged families. For example, a cost-benefit analysis of the Chicago child-parent centre program (which offered comprehensive services to children, encouraged parent involvement and had a child-centred basic skills focus) demonstrated that the preschool component of the program returned $7.14 (US, 1998) on every dollar spent through educational, social welfare and socioeconomic benefits.[6]

Despite such evidence, we as a nation are yet to accept the wisdom (and cost benefits!) of early intervention, learn from our existing programs, and ensure the commitment of governments to making this a national priority. However, there are two existing levers that we can use to continue to drive this message - the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, and ARACY’s NEST initiative.

4. Young children are rights holders too!

While it is critical that we address the health and wellbeing of young children because it forms the foundations for later life, it is not just about who these children will become, but about who these children are right now!

Children have human rights too, not because they are ‘future adults’ but because they are human beings today.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that children, including the very youngest children, be respected as persons in their own right.

The UN Committee has stated that young children should be recognised as active members of families, communities and societies with their own concerns, interests and points of view. To exercise these rights, young children have particular requirements for physical nurturance, emotional care and sensitive guidance, as well as for time and space for social play, exploration and learning, with and without the gaze of adults.

One of the Guiding Principles of the Convention is the right to respect for the views of the child, in all matters affecting them (article 12). And it is this principle that gives children the agency to realise all other rights.

The UN Committee has emphasised that article 12 applies to both younger and older children. Even the youngest children are entitled to express their views which should be give due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.

Young children make choices and communicate their feelings, ideas and wishes in many ways, long before they are able to communicate through the conventions of the spoken or written word.

5. Lessons from the Big Banter

I strongly believe that children and young people are the experts about their own lives and that’s why my initial priority as Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner I needed to speak to the experts – by conducting the Big Banter listening tour.

Through the Big Banter I’ve met face to face with well over 1,000 children and I’ve heard from a further 1,000 plus kids from my online survey and reply-paid postcards. I’ve also heard from hundreds of children’s advocates.

The Big Banter officially commenced in June 2013 and concluded at the end of September. And having heard from children across the county, I’d like to share with you a selection of what they’ve said is important for their wellbeing.

Children and their advocates have raised lots of different issues.

And some issues have been raised many times.

In general though, children have told me that the most important things to them are being able to be with family and friends and to be safe. They enjoy their freedoms and being able to play, being active and having fun, but they also appreciate fair boundaries and rules.

They are particularly concerned about the level of violence, aggression and bullying in the community and would like to live in an environment free from drugs, alcohol and smoking.

They worry that some families cannot afford to give children the things they would like, and they want more things to be available for free. They want people to show more respect for one another and they want to be respected and listened to. And they definitely want to have a say.

They also, as children’s imaginations do, threw in requests for secret chambers, jumping castles, flying foxes and rockets for everyone. And pizza and lollies rated highly on their wish lists.

And although so far I have not had the chance to speak face to face with many children under five years, I received several hundred postcards - thanks especially to GoodStart Early Learning - from children aged between three and five years.

In the postcards children are asked what would make life better for children and young people in Australia. They made a variety of responses, most of them by way of drawings. Their main choice of topics were play, family and safety. Here are a few.

As you can see from this next postcard, some children have a pretty developed sense of priorities, even at the age of five!

I also spoke to as many children’s advocates and organisations as I could as part of my listening tour, and many of their concerns reflected the priorities expressed by children.

And it will be no surprise to you that one of the strongest themes to emerge from advocates was the call for a comprehensive and coordinated investment across the nation in early intervention and preventative services for children and families - to build resilient children, within resilient families, in resilient communities.

I believe this is the only way to turn the seemingly entrenched cycle of disadvantage that is experienced by so many Australian children and families, and reduce our reliance on costly tertiary systems.

6. Conclusion

I am in the process of finalising my first report to parliament, as part of my annual statutory obligations as National Children’s Commissioner.

In my report, I draw together some of the feedback I received during the Big Banter, review our key human rights obligations in respect of children, describe existing national initiatives that have the potential to advance children’s rights, and draw out a number of themes that I see as underpinning my work over the coming years.

I would like to conclude by sharing these themes with you – themes that have emerged as central to ensuring the maximum protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of our children:

  1. A right to be heard – promoting children’s voice and participation in decision-making processes, and enabling greater opportunities to hear from children about their concerns
  2. Freedom from violence, abuse and neglect - delivering safe environments and respect for the dignity of the child
  3. The opportunity to thrive - safeguarding the health and wellbeing of all children in Australia, including by building an effective early intervention and prevention system; with a focus on the most vulnerable children and young people – much along the lines of the proportionate universalism concept that has been the focus of discussion here.
  4. Engaged civics and citizenship - through education and awareness-raising of children and the community about their rights and responsibilities, in practical and meaningful ways.
  5. Action and accountability - taking action to collect comprehensive national data about child wellbeing, progress a national vision for Australia’s children, and develop mechanisms by which children’s interests are systematically considered in law, policy and practice development and review.

I am in the process of determining what specific projects I can drive forward against these themes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to my thinking to date, and so generously provided me with your insights and the benefits of your experience. And while the ‘banter’ is officially over, this role is all about bantering and listening, so I want to encourage all of you to continue to connect with me and share your ideas and wisdom, to the benefit of all our children.

I look forward to receiving the outcomes of this conference, and once again I would like to thank the organisers for this opportunity to speak. Thank you.


[1] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 7 – Implementing child rights in early childhood (2005), para 6.
[2] Australian Institute of Family Studies, ‘Child abuse and neglect statistics’, last updated May 2013. At (viewed 22 October 2013). Child protection statistics tell us how many notifications of child abuse are made to state and territory child protections services, and whether these cases of abuse are substantiated. However, it is important to note that this does not tell us the exact numbers of children who are subject to abuse in Australia. For example, these figures are likely to be lower than instances of abuse as there are cases that are not reported. Also, child protection statistics exclude cases where the abuse is not perpetrated by the parent and the parent is protecting the child. They may also include some children who are reported more than once in a 12 month period. Other countries have undertaken prevalence or incidence studies which may enable a more accurate estimate of abuse and neglect, usually by way of large population surveys.
[3] K Richards, ‘Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia’, Australian Institute of Criminology Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No 419 (2011). At (viewed 22 October 2013).
[4] Australian Government, A Snapshot of Early Childhood Development in Australia 2012 – Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) National Report (2013), p 5.
[5] T G Moore and M McDonald, Acting Early, Changing Lives: How prevention and early action saves money and improves wellbeing, prepared for the Benevolent Society by the Centre for Community Child health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital (2013). At (viewed 22 October 2013).
[6] Acting Early, Changing Lives: How prevention and early action saves money and improves wellbeing, p 18.

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner