How has the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) made a difference in the everyday lives of children, particularly those needing special protection? There have been reforms in law policy. There have also been resource allocations, an increase in the number of training and awareness raising programmes, and the development of plans of action for children. However, there is a lack of evidence of the impact of all these actions on the day to day lives of children. Moreover, in the child protection sector in particular, there is a dearth of evaluations of interventions designed to prevent children from being exploited, abused or neglected. This paper examines the role of child agency as it relates to child protection. The focus arises from recognition that child protection approaches can be ineffective, and even counterproductive, when local context is not given sufficient attention (Bissell et al., 2007). The prevailing child protection models – child rescue, social services and medical models – commonly neglect local community assets, including the role of children themselves. Yet in many cases these assets may play a critical role, particularly when family and community are the primary line of defence to protect children from violence and exploitation. Rethinking child protection from a rights perspective requires building on empirical and theoretical understandings of child agency and child development, and the interactions between them. Accordingly, the first section of the paper begins by reviewing the literature on child agency, identifying what is understood (or not understood) about child agency in relation to child protection. The term ‘child agency’ highlights how children constantly respond to their environment, and recognizes the contributions of children as agents to their own protection and to their societies. It directs attention to the opportunities afforded to children and their capacities to have an influence. To contextualize the above discussion in concrete terms, the paper examines the documents and materials produced around the UN Study on Violence against Children (hereafter referred to as the UN Study). The UN Study was selected because: (a) it is identified as the first UN study to “engage directly and consistently with children” (United Nations, 2006a, p. 5), underlining and reflecting children’s status as rights holders; (b) a range of methods were used to collect information internationally over a three-year period; and (c) various stakeholders were involved in design, collection and promotion, including international and non-governmental organizations, and academics. While the intention of this review was to be comprehensive in nature, it is important to note that it was limited to written or audio materials accessible to the author; primary research with children and adult participants was not part of its terms of reference. The review itself also only examines materials produced in preparation for the UN Secretary-General’s Report on Violence against Children and the World Report on Violence against Children (United Nations, 2006b), and shortly thereafter; however, the outcomes of the UN Study continue to unfold internationally, nationally and locally, Aiming to explore child agency, the paper considers the UN Study through a ‘child agency’ lens. The parameters of the UN Study are also taken into consideration, in that, while child participation was identified as an integral element of the study, the overarching objective was to draw an in-depth global picture of violence against children and provide recommendations for the improvement of legislation, policy and programmes. Thus there were many opportunities for civil society, including children, to provide input into the process, and children’s recommendations from the consultation processes were reflected in the overarching recommendations of the study. In the process of conducting the study, there were several instances where the role of children as actors was brought to the fore. These initiatives undertaken in relation to the UN Study, and others in parallel, were instructive for all involved. Among other things, it is clear that in order to draw on children’s agency, and provide opportunities for that agency to be exercised, traditional methods, structures and processes of engaging children need further consideration. Truly embracing child agency requires child–adult partnerships, the reorientation of adults as researchers and decision makers towards more supportive roles, the adoption of more interdisciplinary approaches to working with children, and the creation and application of innovation to bridge the gap between research, advocacy and programming and to uphold children’s dignity. The UN Study demonstrates how children are coping with and negotiating the multiple dimensions of violence in their everyday lives. However few examples of the involvement of children in identifying and implementing solutions to address violence against children are included in the World Report on Violence against Children. That said, they were available in supporting documents to the UN Study. In light of the UN Study’s limitations and evolving nature, the analysis also raises questions about the interchangeability of child agency and child participation in the child rights community and the disjuncture between the two. The concluding section of this paper argues that the use of child agency, or its closer realignment to child participation, will help to reveal how child protection initiatives and practices have often failed to recognize the role of context and the environment-dependent nature of child development. Reframing child protection through the lens of child agency recognizes the multifaceted, everchanging nature of family and societal structures, and draws attention to the individual in relation to the multitude of contextual factors that affect and are affected by the child. Embracing child agency will create opportunities to devise interventions to address violence against children at the individual, collective or proxy levels.

Sustainable Development Goals:
Related Subject(s): Children and Youth

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  • Published online: 30 Jun 2009
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