LUK – A voice for the human rights of street involved children
By Rich Hooks-Wayman
One of the core values of LUK, Inc. is that “we respect and promote the intrinsic worth, strengths and potential of each individual.” (http://www.luk.org/about/sense-of-mission)
On June 16th and 17th, I was honored to be asked to facilitate an international panel of legal experts on street involved children and youth in London. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty hosted the International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth. (www.ambar.org/streetyouthsummit.)
As the first ever comprehensive international discussion about the legal needs of vulnerable street children populations, the ABA invited legal advocates, scholars, and nonprofit service organizations from nations in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America to identify and publish international legal standards for the protection and human rights of children who survive, without parental support, in street environments. I started my career as a Legal Aid attorney for low-income children and families and have been active with the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty for over a decade.
Over 160 advocates, experts, lawyers, judges, service providers and other leaders from 36 countries working in over 150 nations met in London to focus on the legal needs and rights of street children and youth. I was proud to be one of the voices at the London Summit and to represent the Commonwealth and the United States!
In every nation there exist abandoned, abused, orphaned, and sexually exploited children who attempt to survive on the streets. Street environments and economies expose youth to crime, violence, drug addiction, human trafficking, torture, and death. Over the past three decades, we have learned more about this population and community-based, culturally appropriate services that offer children and youth an exit from street life and deep poverty. (http://streetchildren.org/)
While common literature and media have historically portrayed ‘street children’ as either victims or delinquents, research has begun to recognize this population as a subpopulation influenced by a myriad of complex situations. Causal factors contributing to children becoming enmeshed in street cultures include deep poverty, inability of parents to care for children, abuse or neglect by parents, natural disasters, parental deaths, disabilities, discrimination, or displacement due to war or conflict. Social isolation, stigma, and discrimination against children who experience life on the streets, amplify their risk for exploitation. Street children are subjected to physical violence, sexual exploitation, financial exploitation, and slavery. Whether in New York, Los Angeles, Manila, Sydney, Bangkok, Mumbai, Nairobi, or Moscow, children living in street environments are targeted for commercial sex exploitation, human trafficking, and enslavement.
However, research has also shown that a child’s ‘street connectedness’ does not necessarily divest them from on-going relationships or interactions with parents, kin, or support networks. Like all humans, children and youth who are involved with street culture still require trusting, caring relationships in order to build skills and sustain their daily existence. Interpersonal relationships continue with both family, kin, and peers on the street while youth attempt to survive and escape harm in street environments.
The International Summit convened an international and interdisciplinary team to meet in London with the goal of developing model principles and international standards in law and policy to protect street children from torture, abuse, human trafficking, and neglect. This initiative coincided with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta (one of the first codifications of individual legal rights in the West). The Summit helped to shine a light on the challenges of street-connected children and to bring the world’s attention to the issue to improve the lives of vulnerable and marginalized children.
Why the focus on human rights? Advocates have found that charities alone cannot cope with the scale of poverty and exploitation occurring across continents.
This is an important moment to move forward. Regardless of what drives them to the street, all children have a right to citizenship, identity, safety, and a path to a productive future. Standards are needed to improve laws and policies as well as to ensure consistent implementation of those laws and policies.
The Summit attendees share a commitment to developing standards for the empowerment as well as protection of street youth in key areas including:
- human needs,
- migration and crossing borders,
- education and employment,
- family support, and
- child welfare.
In order to address this crisis, our emphasis should not be drawn to blaming the child or family but focus on the failings of nations and community systems to ensure their protection and positive development. The world community and each nation must develop a ‘floor’ of expectations and standards – basic human rights – that must obligate a social and political response in offering protection and support. Without the recognition of basic human rights, and investments in the enforcement of those rights, our ability to turn back this tide will be impossible.
The Summit’s publication of standards and model policies will be shared with the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child as it develops a General Comment on Children in Street Situations. It has been over 20 years since the United Nations reviewed the plight of street children in a comprehensive manner. Given the recent commitment of the United Nation’s to publish a General Comment on Children in Street Situations, the International Summit’s legal standards and public policy recommendations have the opportunity to spur reforms across nations to prevent and end child homelessness and extreme deprivation in street environments. We applaud the work already begun on a General Comment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child focused on children in street situations.
Through my commitment to the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, I have committed our organizations to continue the work begun in London in June 2015 -- to create the standards and methods by which the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and other rights granted by law, will become a reality for street youth globally.
However, the good news is that you can be a part of this movement too!
To participate in the next phase of the global initiative, please join the International Street Youth Law Initiative List Serv and complete the survey via this link to share your views on how we can move forward collaboratively: americanbar.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_1zQpLE2fS7aRVKR
The London Summit holds out hope that a collective dialogue and consensus can be achieved that offers every nation basic standards and legislative policies to create lasting and sustainable change. I was honored to be a part of this gathering, and thank my staff and Board for supporting me in bringing the voice of Massachusetts to this international summit.
Richard A. Hooks Wayman