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Children have rights too

Some of Switzerland's younger "university" students learned about their rights Universität St.Gallen

Children should be aware of their rights and actively demand them, St Gallen law professor Thomas Geiser tells

Geiser, who specialises in labour and family law, has been giving a series of lectures on children’s rights at St Gallen’s annual Children’s University.

The Children’s University is aimed at giving pupils, aged ten to 12 years, a taste of academia.

This year’s topic elicited an excited response from the young people attending. Did parents have the right to make children do their homework or stop them playing computer games, they wanted to know. Yes, answered Geiser, it’s part of their parental duty.

But some questions were more serious. What rights do children have when parents divorce? Here the authorities – and legislation – become involved. How was it to give a lecture to children rather than to older students?

Thomas Geiser: This is of course very much harder from a didactic point of view than when you teach students. It needs a lot more pictures, and a simplified vocabulary. My assistant, who has children, always tells me afterwards that I was far too complicated (laughs). The topic of your lecture was children’s rights, which had a lot of resonance with your young audience. How good is the situation in Switzerland?

T.G.: Switzerland has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and regularly reports back on the situation. Like most European countries, it has good children’s rights compared with countries in other parts of the world.

But I also think that there is room for improvement, for example, consulting children during the divorce process about their wishes is a relatively new development.

The law on this has really only been in force since 2000, but it would have been necessary to have it before that because Switzerland signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. As far as I know, there are still courts which have problems with the practice.

But it must be said that overall enormous improvements have been made in this area in recent years. What are the other areas that need improvement?

T.G.: There are all the problems with access to school lessons for so-called “sans papiers” [illegal immigrants] i.e. how much of an opportunity they really have to go to school here in Switzerland. Basically they do, but there are always problems. For example, it doesn’t really make sense that children can go to school but that afterwards they are not allowed to do an apprenticeship because of their legal status.

Of course, the question of whether Switzerland has enough social rights could also be discussed. It is generally well known that we don’t have enough day-care facilities for children whose mothers and fathers work. These are certainly points that that can and should be improved. In which areas does Switzerland do well?

T.G.: What is really good is the healthcare system, and for people with normal residency status the whole schools system is very good. There’s no real problem with the whole area of child labour.

The law, in line with international regulations, forbids child labour. Children under 15 years old are not allowed to work. But there are very limited exceptions in which children from the age of 13 years old may be employed as messengers and for light work. Also permitted is for children of any age to be employed in cultural, artistic and sporting events and in advertising. Are people aware of children’s rights in Switzerland?

T.G.: This is something that has really changed in the past years. Campaigns on children’s rights have certainly achieved a lot. Adults are much more aware of these rights than before. For example there is no longer any maltreatment of children at school. But it was completely different a few years ago. In earlier times, teachers were allowed to use corporal punishment. This is today completely forbidden.

A lot has changed for children too, and indeed lectures such as this one help children know what rights they have and that they should demand these rights – which does not always make the situation easy for adults. Children’s rights are dealt with by both the cantons and the government, which can make the process complicated. Some people are calling for a national ombudsman or for a national action plan.

T.G.: One has to take care here. It won’t necessarily become any easier if you always appoint ombudsmen. I think that the reporting on the UN convention is very important, it has some effects and it provokes the right reflections on what is being done and what is not. So basically the future looks good for children in Switzerland.

T.G.: I would say so, we just need enough children!

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in St Gallen,

This year’s children’s university theme was “Do children have rights?” and it took place in three parts in May and June, with the last lecture on June 10.

Around 250 children, aged 10-12, normally attend. Each receives a special certificate at the end.

The idea is to acquaint children with issues that are relevant to society above and beyond the subjects they are taught at school: children, too, should be able to provide a critical assessment of such issues. They and their parents are also familiarised with university life.

It first took place in the winter semester 2003/2004 and is the oldest children’s university in Switzerland.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force in 1990.

Switzerland signed the agreement in 1991 and ratified it in 2007.

Some of the fundamental rights of children are:

An inherent right to live, survival and development

Freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, colour, sex or disability

Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly

Right to be registered immediately after birth, to have a name and a nationality and to be cared for by parents

Protection by the state from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse

Governments and courts must make the best interests of the child a primary consideration and ensure the protection, safety and health of the child

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR