Story: Childhood

Page 6. Children’s rights

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Protection rights

In the early 19th century children had no special rights in law or wider society. They were not distinguished from adults. This changed later in the century as childhood became recognised as a separate stage of life. Children were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. This was not understood in terms of ‘rights’ (this concept arose later), but underlying it was a belief that children had a right to protection.

This attitude was reflected in social organisations like the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children (established in Auckland in 1893). New laws aimed to protect children from neglect and abuse, restricted their ability to work outside the home and provided for compulsory free education. Law changes signalled a limited willingness by the state to intervene in the lives of private families for the benefit of individual children.

Unwanted idealism

Trade unionist Edward Hunter (1885–1959) founded a group called the Rights of Childhood League in 1919. It brought together unionists and educationalists to lobby for improvements in child welfare. A booklet called Rights of childhood was published the same year. The League did not last very long – in 1922 the Truth newspaper wrote ‘Some time ago a dreamy idealist founded a Rights of Childhood League, having some ambition more worthy of a human soul than a thousand a year and a motor car. This League fell to pieces and the Practical Man said “I told you so”!’.1

Welfare rights

In the 20th century the development of a comprehensive social-welfare system extended the state’s protection of children’s rights. These rights were cast as a welfare issue. The Education Department was responsible for child welfare until the Department of Social Welfare was established in 1972. The Child Welfare Branch (1925–72) was responsible for deprived and delinquent children. Outside government, the Plunket Society was the most prominent child health and welfare agency.

Later in the century, government legislation dealing with children gave their welfare paramount status above all other considerations, including parents’ rights. Early examples were the Guardianship Act 1968 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1974. In parental divorce and separation cases child welfare was critical. Children could have their own independent legal representation. The Status of Children Act 1969 made all children equal in the eyes of the law regardless of their parents’ marital status or their country of birth.

International rights

Throughout the 20th century recognition that children could have specific rights grew. This happened within an international context. Documents outlining children’s rights were endorsed by the League of Nations in 1924 and ratified by the United Nations in 1959. New Zealand belonged to both these organisations. In 1989 the United Nations adopted a more comprehensive document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child (known as UNCROC), which was ratified by New Zealand in 1993. It applied from birth to 18 years. UNCROC was not embodied in law but was referred to by many government and non-government agencies.

Acknowledging children

1979 was the International Year of the Child. It was a United Nations initiative and marked the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The intention behind the year was to encourage countries to review their approach to children and commit to programmes designed to enhance their well-being. A UN working party was set up to write the convention UNCROC, which was adopted in 1989 after 10 years of consultation and drafting. New Zealand has had an annual Children’s Day since 2000.

Child liberation and participation

From the 1970s there was a new focus on children’s liberty and participation rights. Supporters of children’s rights said that children should be able to make and exercise their own choices in life in addition to being protected. Critics said that rights like this burdened children with adult choices and responsibilities they were not equipped to handle, and created problems for parents and teachers trying to exert their authority.

Age restrictions in law were a focus for liberation advocates. UNCROC balanced protection and liberation rights but did not tackle age restrictions. Though the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 prohibited discrimination on the basis of age, this only applied to those 16 or over. In 2004 there were 497 provisions in New Zealand law that discriminated on the basis of age.

Child advocates

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner was established in 1989. In the 2000s non-governmental organisations with a focus on children’s rights included Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa, and the Littlies Lobby. International children’s organisations with branches in New Zealand included Barnados, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and Save the Children. YouthLaw Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki provided legal advice and representation for children and young people.

  1. New Zealand Truth, 21 January 1922, p. 6. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood - Children’s rights', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 November 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011