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Does international volunteering promote children’s rights?

Does international volunteering promote children’s rights?

By Mona Lock Skålevik

In a time when the volunteer tourism industry is booming, there is a disturbing disregard for children’s rights. Many volunteer projects involve children; teaching, caretaking and after-school sports clubs to name a few. Most of them require little or no experience from the volunteers. Some companies do require a police background check, but most do not. Nevertheless, is an attempt to stop sexual abuse of children enough in regards to respecting their rights?

‘Children’s rights’ seems like an easy topic: children have the right to live, to be protected from harm, to health care and to quality education. Look deeper, though, at the convention of interdependent rights and consider the actual implications for children, and it becomes a complex task. This task needs to be handled by anyone considering sending or accepting international volunteers and, indeed, by all potential volunteers. Perhaps the one major rights article to consider is ‘the best interest of the child’.

When it comes to child rights good intentions are irrelevant. Last year Kirsten Sandberg, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, wrote that children should be seen as subjects of rights, rather than objects of charity. This means that children are entitled to certain rights and that they should get these without being dependent upon charity. They don’t need to be grateful for the rights that they are entitled to.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most ratified human rights convention in the world, ratified by all countries except the USA. The foreword sets the tone by stating that all children should be “brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity”. One of the most important things about the Convention is that all the rights are interdependent. They rely on each other; one right cannot be considered or achieved without also considering the other rights. All children have the right to education, but this does not mean that other rights should be violated, for example, by moving children away from their parents to live in an orphanage so that they can go to school.

Photo from Flickr.

This takes us back to ‘the best interest of the child’, Article 3. The best interest should be considered for each individual child and for groups of children, such as children in a specific school. What is the best interest of the child? Who gets to decide this? This has been discussed at length, and it is different from case to case. However, I think it is fair to say that volunteers coming in for a few months should not be the ones to decide on the best interest of the child. Is it in children’s best interest to have several international volunteers each year, with no qualifications, “teaching” them English? What effect will accepting or sending international volunteers have on the best interests of these children as a group, and on each individual child?

This then has to be considered alongside every other article of the CRC. For example, the child’s right to information and the child’s right to be heard and participate in decisions made about them and their lives. Are their opinions on the constant flow of foreign volunteers considered? Or are the children made to act as if this is a good thing? Or perhaps no-one has ever asked their opinion on this, so they believe they are not entitled to one? Are the children given the proper, age appropriate information about who these people are, why they are there and what they are supposed to do? Would an agency be honest with children and say the volunteers are there so the agency can make money, and they have probably chosen to come to this particular place because they think you – as children – cannot do much, if anything, without their unskilled “help”?

When it comes to children who are often seen as “other” than the children of our home countries, the first thing to consider is Article 2 on non-discrimination. Children should not be discriminated against for any reason. Why do volunteer organisations and volunteers think it is OK to discriminate against children in “other” countries? Volunteers do jobs abroad they would never be allowed to do at home because they are not qualified, and it is not considered to be in the best interest of the child to have volunteers coming in for only a few weeks or months at a time. Yet, it is perfectly acceptable in the volunteering industry to discriminate against children in “other” countries and treat them far worse than children at home. Why is this the case?

phone photo rights
Taking pictures on a smartphone. Photo from Wikimedia.

The concept of dignity from the foreword of the Convention particularly stands out to me in the context of international volunteering. In this social media age where everyone has a smartphone and anyone can post pictures on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as soon as they are taken, the dignity of children in international volunteering projects does not seem to be considered at all. Is it all about having pictures of yourself with cute children and telling stories of how this experience has changed you, without considering the rights and dignity of the children? There is also the protection of children’s privacy, which is another child right. Given the vast amount of pictures of children on social media taken by international volunteers, this does not seem to be an issue. Are children asked and able to give proper informed consent to all the volunteers who come in for a few weeks? Do the children know where the pictures end up, what the story around them will be and that they will now forever be on the Internet? Are the youngest children even capable of understanding the implications of these images?

All organisations should show, in connection to children’s rights, how they have come to their decisions to send or accept international volunteers. What considerations have been made and why? Have certain rights been ignored in favour of the organisation’s need to make money? The best interest of the child should always be the primary consideration when a project revolves around children, yet this is a difficult and complex task. A thorough understanding of child rights and the situations of children, both in general and individually, is needed to be able to fully manage this task. We must constantly ask if our decisions are in the best interest of the child. It is all about understanding and respecting children’s rights and, ultimately, children themselves.

Mona Lock Skålevik is a student of Social Anthropology and Children’s Rights. She has several years of experience volunteering in Norway with child rights organisations, and is a former intern for Save the Children. Her passion for travel and children’s rights have formed the focus of her studies. You can follow her on Twitter @LockMona.

Featured image from Pixabay.

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