AS I looked at the images of those young students of St. Scholastica’s College in a political really, bearing placards that accuse the President of being a dictator, proclaiming that anyone can be a drug pusher, I had to reflect on my own past action.
I looked back to the year 2000 when I was being persecuted by my enemies in my previous university. At the time, I had already left for Hawaii on a fellowship. In my absence, I left the fighting in the hands of my wife, and my children.
As a final pitch to protect my rights as a faculty member, my wife went to the venue where the university council was meeting, to distribute copies of a petition on my behalf to appeal my case to that influential university body. And at her side helping were my three young children, aged 10, 7 and 5.
It is a teaching and learning moment for me about the rights of children, and the tenuous ground we have to tread between educating them about defending the rights of others on one hand and protecting their rights as children on the other. At the time, the only thing that was certain was that my children were there to fight for my rights.
It was not a political rally. But a part of me then, and until now, asked whether it was proper for my children to take part in fighting my battles. While my wife explained to them the reason why they were there, that they were in fact doing it to defend my rights, we were unsure if they fully understood why they had to stand there, handing out to members of the university council a petition the contents of which they would not have fully understood.
Acting as parents or educators, the challenge for us adults is how we should negotiate our obligation to our children to ensure that their rights are protected, even as we teach them to defend rights in general.
Article 13 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that every child “shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.” However, the Convention also stipulated that this may be subject to certain restrictions, but only when such are provided by law and are necessary to “respect the rights or reputations of others” or for the “protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”
Article 14 explicitly states that the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion shall be respected, but at the same time recognizes “the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.”
Article 15 further directs states parties to recognize the “rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly.” It also specifically provides that the only restriction to these rights are those imposed in “conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
A succeeding optional protocol to the Convention signed in 2000 prohibits the conscription of children below 18 years old in armed conflict.
It is easy to argue that children must be educated to fight an emergent dictatorship, or to be vigilant against wanton abuse of human rights. But the spirit of the prevailing international laws weighs heavily in favor of protecting more the rights of the child, and less on recruiting them to fight for our rights as adults. This is echoed in the national policy discourse which is more defined in protecting the rights of children under residential care, in exploitative and hazardous work conditions, in situations of trafficking, in situations of disasters and other emergencies, and in situations of armed conflict. Philippine laws are silent on the extent the participation of children in political activities can be allowed.
An analysis of the language of the UN Convention would reveal that the participation of children in political activities such as political rallies is not an absolute right granted to the child. Thus, no school or university can compel its students to attend rallies as a curricular requirement, without the consent of the parents or legal guardians, and without due regard to the “evolving capacities of the child” and the prevailing legal environments, and the moral duties and obligations that must govern relations of people in society.
It is this thought that continues to engage me and make me ask if as parents, my wife and I did the right thing in asking our children to help distribute those petition papers in 2000.
And it is the same thought that makes me wonder if St. Scholastica has not in fact violated the rights of children under the terms of the UN Convention for making attendance at political rallies a compulsory part of its curriculum, and if it is not violating their freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds” by limiting their exposure to only that side that the school administrators prefer and approve.