Friday, 21 November 2008

International Day for the Rights of The Child and Janusz Korczak

Remembering the "father" of children's rights.


In Poland, before the war, Janusz Korczak was the most well-known and the most respected scientific personality in the field of childhood. Paediatric doctor, he was already known as a friend and protector of children. It was for them that he became a writer.

He entered the history books on the day of his deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp, with children of the Warsaw ghetto whom he had not wanted to abandon.

"The fact that Korczak voluntarily gave up his life for his beliefs speaks of the greatness of the man. But that is unimportant compared to the strength of his message," the writer and psychoanalyist, Bruno Bettelheim, said.

Korczak is considered to be the envoy for children's rights, because, from the beginning of the century, he worked for a complete overhaul of education and the status of the child, on totally new constitutional foundations, emphasising the protection of and absolute respect for children.

Even today, his writings for children and adults (How to love a child, King Mathias I) his radio broadcasts or his national newspaper are priceless references that have brought joy to entire generations of young Polish people.

More important still are the two model orphanages he founded and organised as children's republics: Dom Sierot (1912) and Nasz Dom (1919).

As much an artist as a scientist and dedicated clinician, he embodied the true principles of respect, a school of democracy and participation which today constitute a generally accepted benchmark.

Janusz Korczak himself is increasingly viewed as the forerunner of formal education and of "person-centred education". This is not the case (through misunderstanding undoubtedly..) but he might just the same be recognised as a "person-centred teacher", alongside Paul Robin, Sébastien Faure and Francisco Ferrer (1859 -1908), Spanish anarchist who, with Korczak, remains the only teacher to have been killed for his ideas (for the latter in putting them into action to the point of not seeking to flee from the Warsaw ghetto).

In the field of children's rights, he is also the recognised forerunner of putting the positive rights of children into practice (rights of expression, of participation, of association, etc) officially established on November 20th 1989 by articles 12 to 17 of the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, a major political text and act, the development of which was demanded from the end of the 19th century.

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child is a text of 54 articles, adopted by the United Nations on November 20th 1989. It states that a child is not just a fragile being who must be protected but is a person who has the right to be educated, cared for, protected, wherever he is born in the world. And also that he has the right to have fun, to learn and to express himself. It was ratified by 191 out of 193 countries. Only Somalia and the United States refused to commit themselves.

This text is very important but not enough: there is still much to do to make the rights of children a reality. Rights are only real as far as they are put into practice, for children as for everyone. To promote children's rights, first of all create the social, economic and cultural conditions to make them accessible to all. Such is the price for the rights of the child to be truly respected.