Now is our moment to turn up the volume on kids’ voices

By Chris Varney

By Chris Varney. This article is part of our July focus on the rights of children and youth. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

“I have never felt like I meant much,” said a 17-year-old in a rural homeless shelter.

“The violence in my childhood has led to me having schizophrenia,” said an 18-year-old in a metro shelter.

“I am 13 years old. I have been in and out of juvenile detention for the last three years. I think if I had more support I would not do so much crime,” said a boy in a juvenile detention centre.

Three quotes from three different children and young people, all of whom had had their rights denied in their childhoods, all of whom contributed letters to the Dear Kevin book created in the 2009 Youth Representative program.

The Dear Kevin book was a collection of 789 young people’s stories, aspirations and recommendations written to Kevin Rudd MP. Its contributions have been used extensively in child rights advocacy campaigns since 2009. This included the publication of 40 Dear Kevin testimonies in the 2011 Listen to Children NGO Shadow Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

To honour the results that Dear Kevin has helped influence, it was given to Kevin Rudd in June this year. In organising the layout of its letters, there was never any question in my mind which letter should go first. It was the letter that began with the line:

“My father’s violence became so bad that I witnessed my mother being pinned against a wall with knives.”

I received it during my youth consultation in a South Australian homeless shelter. Its author was a girl who I will call “Charlotte”. She gave me this letter without hope or expectation that I would share her story.

I was surprised to receive the letter. Charlotte had been silent throughout the consultation. Her face had looked so sad and empty that I thought it best to leave her alone. I was stunned to learn from reading that she was only 17-years-old; she looked much older.

During my time with World Vision Australia, I have been through some of the poorest slums in India and some of the poorest rural communities in Tanzania. I have met children and young people with nothing. Yet even in the midst of material deprivation, I have found children in such communities to possess a strong sense of inner spirit. So I was taken aback to meet in Charlotte a girl who wore the face of a broken spirit in a community that was so highly developed.

My shock turned into understanding as I read on.

The violence of Charlotte’s father, in her early childhood, was followed by her grandfather sexually abusing her when she was aged six. Tragically, Charlotte’s cry for help was met with only silence from her parents. When she reached early adolescence, she turned to alcohol to cope.

When Charlotte’s family broke up, her mother remarried another violent man. To avoid further abuse, Charlotte fled to a homeless shelter, becoming one of the 22,000 young Australians who are homeless on any given day.

I finished reading with a strong suspicion that this was probably the first time Charlotte had laid out her full story. Up until this point, her parents’ silence had sadly fed her own silence.

When Kevin Rudd finished reading Charlotte’s letter, he looked straight at me and asked “What do we do?”


Presenting Kevin Rudd with the "Dear Kevin" book (photo courtesy of Chris Varney).

This piece is about answering that question so that we may all turn up the volume on children’s rights and wellbeing.

Australia was recently reviewed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on its performance in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This instrument is the world’s most ratified treaty. It lays out children and young people’s rights to life, development, non-discrimination, participation, protection and the promotion of their best interests.

The outcome of this review was a set of recommendations made by the Committee to Australia. These recommendations, whilst dressed in the genteel advocacy of the UN, reveal its frustration with Australia’s chequered progress on children’s rights.

On one hand, Australia has made a marked improvement on children’s wellbeing in recent years. We now have national frameworks on early childhood development, child protection and the prevention of violence. Right now the Government is calling for applications for a National Children’s Commissioner. This newly established role will champion the voices of children and young people on the national stage. Internationally, we have new mechanisms to strengthen states’ accountability to children, such as a new Optional Protocol – or addendum to the Convention – allowing children to report rights violations to the Committee. Right Now readers will soon have an opportunity to sign a petition calling on Australia to ratify this protocol. On the other hand, it will take widespread community education and individual responsibility for us to succeed in curbing the frightening trends engulfing Australia’s most vulnerable children.

…it will take widespread community education and individual responsibility for us to succeed in curbing the frightening trends engulfing Australia’s most vulnerable children.

One such trend is occurring in the out-of-home care system. From 2005 to 2010 there was an overwhelming 51 per cent increase in the number of children placed in out-of-home care. This trend correlates with homelessness. Too many children who have been in care enter into homelessness because they have been denied a proper process to create a leaving care plan. Such plans help these kids to transition from care and to adjust to independent living. Unfortunately only around a third of kids in care get the opportunity to develop one.

Secondly, the Committee has observed that “substantial reforms” are needed in the juvenile justice system. Over the last 20 years there has been a shocking rise in the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in juvenile detention. Today, Indigenous youth are 28 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous youth, an increase since 1993 when the ratio was 17.

These trends are hard for anyone to understand, let alone the Committee, when stacked up against Australia’s relative affluence.

Reversing these trends will require government investment and individual action. But more than that, it will require adopting the right approach.

We all know that community interventions are much more likely to be successful if they embrace an approach which listens to vulnerable children. As an approach, listening to children means respecting a child’s voice, valuing their perspective and giving them some ownership and control in decisions which affect their life. To a young person, I learnt from my work in shelters and detention centres that being listened to and having a voice can mean the difference between empowerment and powerlessness.

To a young person, I learnt from my work in shelters and detention centres that being listened to and having a voice can mean the difference between empowerment and powerlessness.

On a personal level, I know how powerful this approach can be. I was five-years-old when I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a minor form of Autism. When my family sought out specialists to assist me, they received only negative prescriptions of my future abilities. In defiance of this negativity, my family decided to deliver their own behavioural therapy.

It was my family’s respect for my voice that helped me develop my self-esteem. I never felt the burden of wearing a label; I was an equal participant in the world around me. I am grateful every day for Aspergers because it has taught me through participation that a rights-holder can achieve their rights, a citizen is born, a social contract is signed … a leadership journey is begun.

Yet sadly, I have met too many young people with behavioural challenges like Aspergers or a physical or mental disability who have been made to feel as though their voice and participation were less valuable to the community.

Australia will next be reviewed by the Committee in 2018. Since 1997 the Committee has repeatedly called on Australia to respect the views of children.  This should be the central plank of our agenda going forward. Social problems like homelessness, crises like Indigenous juvenile detention and the marginalisation of children with disabilities do not have to be prevailing. We can prevail over them if we respond to a child’s cry for help with serious inquiry, not with silence, if we practice inclusion, not exclusion, and if we celebrate, not tolerate, a young person’s voice.

These micro actions need to be complemented by the macro action of the federal government developing a comprehensive plan of action for implementing the Convention as a whole. This plan should work towards giving full and direct effect to the Convention in Australian law.

Why is this important? It’s important because the rights in this Convention do not belong to international forums or prime ministers.

They belong to all of you on equal terms.

Every generation is given an opportunity to make their mark on the world and pass on a legacy to the next generation. Our moment is now.

Every generation is given an opportunity to make their mark on the world and pass on a legacy to the next generation. Our moment is now.

Today’s young Australians are this country’s first generation to grow up with children’s rights. As a society, we may have failed to implement Charlotte’s rights, but this does not mean that we, as human rights actors, cannot learn from her story.

We can use the Convention as a practical tool for promoting a culture of rights and responsibilities in the young that can benefit generations hereafter. But it will take each and every one of us. I believe we can do it. Don’t you?

Chris Varney was the 2009 Australian Youth Representative to the UN. Currently he serves on the steering committee of the Child Rights NGO Taskforce and works as a Child and Youth Participation Advisor in World Vision’s Australia Program. This piece is the full version of the speech he gave at Melbourne’s call to action on children’s rights on 12 July 12 2012 (see A shorter version of this speech is also available at