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Standing Up For Their Rights
|by Rong Jiaojiao|
An unguarded railway crossing that children pass everyday on their way to school; the school entrance itself blocked almost entirely by vendors. Pei Suping, 11, from Xinhua Elementary School of Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, Gansu Province, has captured these images on camera. Pointing to a photo of the railway tracks, the girl says, "I think a tunnel should be built for us. Children have the right to be protected."
Looking at her world through a camera lens, Pei feels she has "became more aware of my living environment and learnt to make suggestions to students and teachers." A month ago, even the term 'children's rights' was alien to her. Nor had she used a camera before. "My parents always kept it to themselves, afraid I might break it. If I hadn't attended that workshop, I don't know when I could have taken a picture."
Pei learnt her new skills at a UNICEF-funded participatory training workshop on children's rights in Tianzhu in October. Forty teachers and 32 students aged 11-13 came together from five schools of the county for the three-day courses on children's rights and the skills to realize these rights. At the end of the workshop, each school received one Kodak camera with 72 films for students to interpret children's rights through their own perspective.
The workshop forms one small but significant part of the UNICEF girls' education programs that started in 2005 in 12 project counties of five Chinese western provinces. The programs focus on gender-sensitive, child-centered effective learning in a safe school environment, free of discrimination.
The workshop was the first time in 26 years of UNICEF cooperation in China that students and teachers sat and trained together about children's rights, says UNICEF educational project official Guo Xiaoping. Students played games, held group discussions, drew pictures and charts: a new approach for village schoolchildren.
"Children should be the advocate for their own rights and become the watchdog to safeguard these rights," she says.
Liu Wenbo, 10, a participant, illustrated children's rights by apples, with each apple representing one right - the right to be protected, the right to participate and the right to life, subsistence and development.
During a group discussion about the 'four fundamental rights of children', participant Ba Tingting, 10, argued that the right to parental care wasn't that important. "We should learn to take care of ourselves, and later on take care of our parents," she said. Zhu Yue, 11, agrees and has this to say about the right to protection: "We cannot always wait for others to protect us; we should learn to protect ourselves."
Schoolmate Qi Xiaoyun, 11, insisted that the right to privacy was most crucial. "Everybody has their own secret, and we children are no exception. I can have poor food to eat and old clothes to wear, but I need somewhere that only belongs to me."
"Through expressing their own thoughts, children can associate the literal meaning of rights with their daily life. More important, the participation itself is one of the children's rights," says Chen Ying, a trainer from the China National Children's Centre, an organization affiliated with the All-China Women's Federation.
Another trainer, Jiao Jian, a professor from China Women's University, agrees. "The values of democracy, including respect for the rights and dignity of all people, for their diversity and their right to participate are first learned in childhood and adolescence."
The mother of Wang Ling, 10, has noticed a marked difference in her daughter after the workshop. "When she came back, my once-shy little girl talked to me a lot," says Wang Shuxian, 33. "She asked me not to read her diary anymore, because she has the right to privacy. She told me not to always favor her younger brother because they are equal." Wang watches her daughter at play in the backyard, and says, "My daughter's words sound right."
But not every adult welcomes advice from a ten-year-old. Says participant Ren Chengyu, 10, "My father said to me: 'Don't try to be my teacher. You can talk to me like that only after you grow up!'"
Nevertheless, participation empowers children to contribute to their own subsistence, protection and development, explains Guo Xiaoping. Children's civil and political rights include the right to information, to expression, to decision-making and to association. "Children could remember even a single word from a grown-up for a lifetime," she says. "So it is crucial for teachers and parents to create a proper environment to support children's participation to realize their own rights."
Interacting with children is also a learning process for adults and transforms that relationship, that's why teachers were also involved, says Guo. "I felt students were more ready to raise their hands to answer questions here than they used to be in my class," says teacher Wei Rong, 33. "After all, sitting on a tiny, hard, cold wooden stool all day is not that easy," she says, after sitting with her students in a classroom for three days.
Wei, who has 10 years' experience as a Chinese language teacher, admits it is more difficult to be a teacher than it used to be, because "students have so many channels to acquire information that they always raise harsh questions and ideas to challenge your authority. One of the students told me during the discussion that there are no rich or poor, good or bad students, just female and male students," Wei says.
Children's participation is a gradual process, says Guo. "The dominant power of male grown-ups still prevails," agrees Li Shengdi, deputy director of the Tianzhu Educational Bureau. "I hope this training is like a bud planted in children's hearts, which can blossom in the future through the combined efforts of government, teachers, parents and students."
For a place like Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County, with a population of 217,400 people coming from 16 ethnic groups, where earnings average 1,523 Yuan (US$1=8.07 Yuan) a year, a couple of workshops cannot wipe out traditional conceptions overnight.
Pei, meanwhile, is excited by the news that the local educational bureau chief has seen her photos and promised the situation will soon change. "I never thought anything would change when I took the picture. But if it does, that will really inspire me," she says.
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