Intro to Youth Rights

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A million years ago somebody wrote something about the “inalienable rights of humans”, meaning that there are just certain things that everyone should be able to experience, do and have in their lives. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international statement to use the term “human rights”, and has been adopted by the Human Rights movement as a charter. It is short, and worth reading in its entirety — a summary would be about as long as the document itself. The European Convention on Human Rights is the first international document that gives individuals the right to take governments to court based on human rights abuses. Human rights in the United States are protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United States judicial system.

Somewhere along the way somebody got the idea that children and youth weren’t protected by these documents; or worse still, they were protected but since those rights are routinely violated there needs to be specific statements that address their rights. A few years ago when I created a Wikipedia article about children’s rights I found that the literature about these rights was all over the place; however, I agree that children’s rights generally boils down to wanting to do three things:
  1. Protect young peoples’ access to particular things like food, clothes, shelter, education, etc. These are usually called provision rights.
  2. Make sure that young people are safe from abuses, including physical, mental, and psychological abuse. These are protection rights.
  3. Give young people the opportunity to make, direct, evaluate and critique decisions that affect them throughout society. These are participation rights.
This is a big, broad definition, and a pretty modern one. Probably at the very beginning of it this conversation was narrowed down to exclude any idea of actually expanding the rights of young people. Zoomed in on protecting the basic human needs of children, this children’s rights movement – seeing all young people as in need of protection from discriminatory and abusive treatment – came to dominate advocacy for young people.
In the 1960s and 70s that came to be seen as not enough. A youth liberation movement emerged around the idea that young people of any age could and should have the full and complete rights of all adults, and not just the limited ideas that were pushed around by well-meaning adults. According to those youth rights activists, children and youth of all ages should be allowed to vote, work, drive, own property, travel, have legal and financial responsibility, control their own learning, and have a guaranteed income. There were even more far-out elements of this platform that called for all young people to be able to use drugs and have sex without restraint. Some of these radical ideas were clearly differentiated from the youth rights movement, although some of the platform continues to influence individuals and organizations today.
In the mid-1990s a youth rights movement emerged on the Internet calling for society to pay attention to several parts of this platform. Today the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA) has emerged as the most influential and effective organization promoting this platform, and their positions on age discrimination, curfews, behavior modification camps, the drinking age, driving age, economics, education, emancipation, entertainment, free speech, status offenses and the voting age have been sought out in a lot of different public and media venues over the last 10 years.
Today the youth rights movement continues with varying agendas and purposes. There are dozens of organizations and programs committed to convictions that young people have the right to free speech, sexual education and safety, foster youth rights, youth involvement, and much, much more. At least one annual conference heralds youth rights exclusively, and more areas than ever are concerned with youth rights than ever before. Activists around the United States are challenging discrimination against youth by holding protests, producing publications, going to court, and creating pro-youth climates in a variety of communities and institutions.
The gulf between the intent and activities of the youth rights movement and the children’s rights movement continues to grow. Traditional children’s rights advocacy organizations continue adult-driven, adult-centric change focused on benefiting children’s basic human rights; youth rights organizations are generally focused on expanding the current civil rights of youth and challenging discrimination against youth. Young people themselves, as well as adults who were youth rights activists, are winning court cases, taking influential jobs, and serving their communities in a variety of ways that continue to promote youth rights agendas, all without the multi-million dollar budgets and high influence of the people involved in the children’s rights movement.
As the youth rights movement reaches into the future, I think it’s important to ask if it is healthier to have a single, unified movement, or a movement coming from many directions asking different things. Is there a new agenda for youth rights in this millennium, or is the agenda set 40 years ago still useful? Do the factors of race, class, culture and education influence youth rights and youth activists? Is there a wider alliance beyond youth that the youth rights movement can find allegiance with? Having answered many of these questions for themselves, I believe many youth rights activists can continue to influence and steer legislative, judicial and cultural change into the future.

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