Skip to main content
The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Neil Howard and Samuel Okyere about their co-edited collection, International Child Protection: Towards Politics and Participation

Our members, Neil Howard (University of Bath, United Kingdom) and Samuel Okyere (University of Bristol, United Kingdom), talk about their co-edited collection International Child Protection: Towards Politics and Participation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).


Q: What is this edited collection about?

This book is about what we call the international child protection ‘regime’, comprising mainstream international child protection organisations, the discourses and ideologies that govern and structure what they say and do, and the practices that they promote. It aims to pull together in one place the many critiques that scholars have developed about the ways in which ‘child issues’ are governed, and through this to interrogate the field as a whole.

Q: What made you initiate this volume?

This book stemmed from our shared frustration with the failings of international child protection organisations. When we met a decade ago we realised that although we researched in different contexts, we were finding very similar things in terms of problematic child protection discourse and practice.

More and more we came across other scholars finding similar things: top-down, ethno-centric, de-politicised responses to the ills that children face, which ultimately served more to reproduce the intuitions making up the international child protection regime than to help the world’s young.

We wanted, therefore, to bring together the many threads of critique that scholars share of international child protection practice, whether they be working on issues such as ‘child labour’, child soldiering, or anything else, and to apply them systematically to the structure and operation of the field as a whole.

Excerpt from the book:

In social policy, development and humanitarian circles, few social problems elicit condemnation more quickly than those involving children. Consider ‘trafficking’ or ‘labour exploitation’, for example. Both are widely regarded as awful, but in each case, the addition of the prefix ‘child’—as in ‘child trafficking’ or ‘child labour exploitation’—renders the bad even worse.

This is the power of the concepts of ‘childhood’ and ‘child’, especially as presented within dominant international child protection discourses underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Labour Organisation’s Minimum Age Convention (No.138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), among others.

These UN Conventions have collectively inspired major global consciousness on the state of childhood and children’s rights and also informed the formation and expansion of diverse, influential and vibrant child rights actors and concerns in international development, social work, social policy, and many other fields.

As the most widely ratified Convention in the history of the UN, the CRC has been most influential in this regard. Across the globe, national and regional governments, trades unions, academics, individual human rights advocates and innumerable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have taken on the cause of this Convention. For many, the CRC (and to a lesser extent the International Labour Organisation [ILO] Conventions 138 and 182) is an affirmation by global leaders of children’s important place in society and of their entitlement to special protections and rights in their own names.

The Convention and other UN childhood centric instruments have thus provided a ‘language structure’, as O’Byrne (2012) puts it, through which child rights claims can be made across the globe. Today, almost every country in the world has a form of national or regional legislation and policies driven by the language and political structure provided by the CRC and ILO Conventions 138 and 182.

Yet, behind this immense support lie significant problems. Child rights violations are still a commonplace occurrence across the globe. Children routinely suffer both structural and personal violence that make a mockery of commitments to their protection in rich, powerful and poor, less powerful nations alike. Indeed, despite the near universal ratification of the CRC, no country has successfully fulfilled all of the CRC’s principles. Core tenets of the CRC such as non-discrimination have arguably retrogressed rather than progressed over the past decade.

This is especially clear when we consider the oppressive and inhumane ways in which child migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are treated by some countries. At the time of writing this chapter, the forced separation of child migrants from their parents or adult companions, alongside the confinement of children in torturous and inhumane immigration detention facilities or refugee camps, are routine aspects of border control in the USA, Europe, Australia and many other places (O’Connell Davidson, 2016).

Successive targets and deadlines set by global leaders for meeting children’s rights to adequate standards of living, education, healthcare and other provisions have floundered in high-, middle- and low-income countries alike. In the area of children’s work—a particular focus of this book—despite increased ratification of Conventions 138 and 182 and the intensification of child labour abolitionist efforts led by the ILO, the number of children estimated by the ILO to be in conditions of illegal or hazardous work fell by only 3% between 2008 and 2012 and 1% between 2012 and 2016 (ILO, 2017, p. 11). Based on this rate of decline, by even the most optimistic assessment, at least 52 million children will still be found in hazardous work in 2025 (ILO, 2017, p. 11), when all such cases should have been ‘eradicated’, according to Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

From the foregoing, it should be clear that there are numerous disjunctures between the promises, potentials and ideals enshrined in the dominant international child rights conventions on one hand and the realities of many children’s lived experiences on the other. Two questions therefore come to mind. First, what are the causes or causal factors of these disconnections and, second, how can these be bridged such that the virtuous promises made to children by world leaders can fully be realised? These two questions constitute the main preoccupation of this book.

The book argues that more innovative and radical actions are needed to accelerate progress on all child rights issues, to genuinely protect the world’s children from the various adversities they face, and more broadly to advance their well-being in the way that the child rights architecture aims to do. This point has been acknowledged by UNICEF, when it declared on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the CRC, that ‘business as usual’ will not be enough to make the Convention’s vision a reality for all children (UNICEF, 2014).

This book argues that departure from business as usual and a move towards more innovative, renewed and radical thinking must start with an evaluation of the structure that has been at the helm of global child rights agendas for the past three decades and will continue driving those agendas for years to come. Indeed, our key objective is to critically interrogate this structure—which we describe as the ‘international child protection regime’—through particular focus on its weaknesses and failures and how these can be overcome.



Back to top