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Blog post: Why teach human rights?

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Blog post: Why teach human rights?

13 April, 2018

By Ruth Pope, Education Officer, Amnesty International UK

Human rights are too difficult for young children. Aren’t they? At Amnesty International, we couldn’t disagree more. That’s why our resources for schools start with the very youngest children in mind.  

At a time when public discourse surrounding human rights is often toxic and dispiriting, we need now, more than ever, to celebrate and promote human rights – particularly with young children. Human rights are relevant to every child. Talking about them is a celebration of what they enjoy and are entitled to - the right to play, to learn, to be with their families and friends and be safe. 

But sadly, we know all too well that the lived experience of many of our children is one in which their rights are not enjoyed. Surely these children have the right to understand what is being denied to them and to develop the skills and confidence to reclaim them for themselves?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which the UK is a signatory, is clear that all children have the right to know what their rights are. That’s why Amnesty’s resource pack for primary schools includes an activity for 7 year olds based explicitly on the rights contained in the UNCRC. It encourages children to learn and think about these rights creatively, by illustrating the convention’s key articles, then joining them up to make a human rights quilt.

Article 29 of the UNCRC states that a child’s education should develop respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It should help prepare children for a responsible life in a free society in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance and equality.

Putting human rights at the heart of teaching and learning not only builds children’s knowledge of human rights, but also equips them with the skills and values they will need to live such a life.  If they know their rights, they can claim them for themselves and for others, and defend them in solidarity when they are at risk. In short, they can become agents of change. With this agency comes a sense of an empowerment which we know fosters hope, wellbeing and motivation to effect positive change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that talking about human rights is easy. If everyone agreed on what freedom means, politicians would engage in a lot less arguing. Teaching about human rights through fiction provides a great way in for young children. Picture books are accessible to the very youngest children – as well as those for whom written English is more challenging - and provide the perfect vehicle to explore the curious, the complex and sometimes the uncomfortable. Great picture books can inspire empathy, raise awareness, broaden horizons and empower young readers to stand up for themselves and others. 

At Amnesty, we believe in action, and have activists from the very young to the very old who send messages of solidarity to people around the world who have had their human rights abused and denied. These messages bring hope and comfort to people in the direst of circumstances - we know the impact they have because the recipients and their families tell us. Our Junior Urgent Action Network provides a fantastic way to engage young children with their first taste of activism, through age-appropriate case sheets and creative action ideas.

Rather than shy away from discussing human rights with young children because they are too complex or might raise difficult questions, educators and policy makers should be taking bold strides to put human rights at the very heart of teaching and learning for all our children from the earliest possible opportunity. Whether the aim is to simply build children’s understanding of their own rights, or to develop their skills and values to uphold and defend the rights of others, human rights education is a right that all our children should enjoy.


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