Over five million children aged under 18 in Australia.Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children are meant to enjoy equal rights to growing up with access to education, healthcare and safety.However, child advocacy groups believe Australia still has a fair way to go.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Australia signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement that promises to give children the rights to a safe and healthy childhood.
UNICEF Australia’s head of policy and advocacy, Amy Lamoin, explains.
“Children have all the same rights as adults, and, at a basic level, that means all the things that happen in a child’s day - going to school, being able to see a doctor, being able to play with friends, being able to spend time with families, being able to rest.”
But according to the latest five-yearly review by UNICEF, since the last report, Australia has made little progress in ensuring that every child’s rights are protected.
“Where we’re most concerned is the education space. We think that children are being left behind in terms of the quality of education that they’re receiving and educational equity. we are concerned about mental health as a really big part of this picture, really high levels of stress and anxiety in our young people in Australia, and then, another area more broadly is what we know is a major issue for children in Australia, in the Pacific, and globally, is how is the government is responding to the climate change picture and how are they ensuring that children grow up in a clean environment.”
One in six Australian children still live in poverty; while one in seven suffer from a mental health condition.
National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell advises children to educate themselves about their rights in order to have a stronger say.
“So it’s really important that we engage them in a conversation about how they can improve their resilience, seek help, and how we can make sure that they get the help they need so that they don’t sit on feelings of feeling anxious but they actually are able to speak up about those things and get the help that they need.”
The 2016 Personal Safety Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that one in eight people had experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15.
In Australia, the age of consent is 16 in all states and territories except for Tasmania and South Australia where the age of consent is 17.
Tiffany Overall is the advocacy and human rights officer at Youthlaw, a community legal centre in Victoria.
“There are certain clear age limits for when you can legally have sex, for example, if you are under 12, another person can’t have sex with you even if you agree.”
According to the Australian Centre for Child Protection, one in 35 children in Australia received child protection services in 2017 to 2018.
Karen Flanagan is the senior policy advisor of Save the Children Australia.
She believes better protection for children starts in abolishing all forms of physical punishment in the family environment.
“Under Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it says that all children have a right to feel safe and be safe anywhere where they are - whether it’s at home or in school or in their community. They’re worthy of that and in a country like Australia, we take that seriously, and we want all children to enjoy those same rights to protection.”
Australia is a multicultural country with close to one in ten children born overseas and around six per cent of children are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
Unfortunately, studies show that racism is rife and affecting as many as seven in ten based on an earlier study by The Foundation for Young Australians.
Megan Mitchell says under the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, all Australian children are entitled to live without discrimination of any kind.
“We need to be calling it out in our school system so educators and children need to work together to make sure that children aren’t experiencing racism in the classroom or in the playgrounds and so that they can claim all the other really important rights that they have to grow up well like getting good education, like being treated fairly, like being safe, including being culturally safe and respected for their background.”
Australia is often under scrutiny for its low age of criminal responsibility where children as young as 10 are incarcerated.
The Human Rights Commission is calling for the government to raise the age threshold.
“Diverting children from the criminal justice system must be a top priority for our nation. At 10 years old, children are young children and if they’re going off track, they really need to be working with families and community members to get them back on track again.”
For real changes to happen, Karen Flanagan says there needs to be a shift in how children’s concerns are received.
“Sometimes, adults think that if you give children too many rights, they will be disrespectful and they will take advantage of that. That’s certainly not the case and that’s certainly not our experience. In fact, when children are empowered and treated respectfully by adults in particular, it certainly will lead to a more peaceful and democratic society.”
For information on children’s rights in Australia, seek advice from your local legal aid centre. For emotional support, contact Kidsline on 1800 55 1800, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or call 000 if you or someone you know is in immediate danger.