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Youth workers can support young Human Rights Defenders— as long as they know what this means

Susan Hunter on the role youth work can play in empowering young people to take action

Youth workers are often required to be many things to young people: listener, advocate, organiser, protector, advisor, supporter.

But would we think of ourselves as supporting them to be human rights defenders?

I have been learning more about human rights defenders, prompted by Scotland’s young people’s active participation in 2018’s UN Day of General Discussion.

That event explored what it meant to defend rights as a child or young person— and what barriers they might face which an older person would not.

But to find out what it meant to be a human rights defender more generally, my first port of call was the United Nations:

“Human rights defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realisation of economic, social and cultural rights…

“…they sometimes address the rights of categories of persons, for example women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of indigenous persons, the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the rights of national, linguistic or sexual minorities.”

I knew about rights, but not about defenders

My own experience as a young person

I have had a long-term interest in children’s human rights.

As a young person I was actively involved in youth participation work, chaired my local youth council, celebrated 10 years of the UNCRC with young people across Scotland and was consulted on the establishment of a Commissioner for Scotland’s young people.

But it’s only now I realise that when I did this, I was a Human Rights Defender!

So I was invited to write this blog to help young people realise that they too are human rights defenders, as that’s something youth workers and youth work organisations can play a valuable role in doing.

Human rights at the heart of youth work

Youth work as a rights promoting practice

Youth work is a rights protecting and rights promoting practice.

This is evident in the 2005 publication, The Nature and Purpose of Youth Work. The opening line says that “youth work plays a key role in delivering the principles outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Fast forward to 2018, when YouthLink Scotland published a refreshed logic model for the sector’s youth work outcomes. This includes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as the all-encompassing glue, binding the youth work practice – ethical, principled, value based and competent – to the delivery of seven outcomes for young people through youth work.

This means that young people can understand their rights through seeing how youth work can realise them. Quality youth work can recognise that their practice is inclusive (article 2), youth-led(article 3), safe and developmental (article 6), participatory (article 12), promotes learning (articles 28 and 29), and provides leisure time and friendship (article 31.)

Making the link

Connecting your work to the rights of children and young people

It’s a short step between making the link between promoting and protecting rights in your own work and helping the young people you work with to see how they do this themselves.

As youth workers we can draw attention to the times when we help someone’s rights become realised— and use this to help them think about if they have promoted or protected human rights.

A beautiful thing about being a Human Rights Defender is that you don’t need to know you are in order to be one.

I was one when I was a young person and would have been even if I’d never realised it. Very probably you work with young people in a similar situation, who already defend human rights and who have no idea that is what they are doing!

But helping them make that step can be empowering and exciting. It can help show them that there’s no minimum age limit when standing up for human rights.

And it can help us build a culture in Scotland where people of all ages understand that— and understand how rights have no age limit, too.

Susan Hunter is the incoming Chief Officer at YouthBorders, and former Policy and Research Manager at YouthLink Scotland, the national agency for youth work. To find out more about Scotland’s Youth Work Outcomes visit:

Find Susan on Twitter: @sus_hunter20