Reviving the lost art of child rights-based approaches
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Group of children in a play session raise their hands with joy.
At its core, a rights-based approach prompts the re-imagination of a sport and development program as a collaborative journey co-creating meaningful life experiences ‘with’ children.

The push for participatory approaches in sport and development has come at a time when enterprise and entrepreneur-centric narratives have become ubiquitous. Programs are being increasingly described from the purview of facilitators, often portrayed as ‘heroic saviors’, while participants remain relegated to the role of passive beneficiaries. While some of these narratives are well-intentioned to encourage more initiatives, a near absence of the voice and lived experiences of participants has become a cause for concern.

The reason why a headline about “touching the lives of millions of children” breeds suspicion is because it offers no context on the method of engagement. It creates the impression that program facilitators dictate the terms and duration of engagement, potentially driven by their private agendas and worldview. When such narratives become mainstream, even organizations with sustained commitments to participants and communities prioritize numerical scale over genuine testimonials, swapping personal stories for metrics of impact and reach.

It needs to be acknowledged that claims like “empowering 6000 children” or “impacting 5 million children” provoke some key questions in the minds of the reader, often without satisfactory answers. One is tempted to ask:

  • How was the participation of children recorded and documented?
  • What was the duration of support provided to each child?
  • How were safeguarding mechanisms implemented?
  • What feedback did the children have, and how was it reviewed and incorporated?
  • What specific metrics were used to determine that a child had been truly ‘empowered’?

These questions can remain conveniently unaddressed because of the general disinclination among adults to meaningfully capture and value children’s perspectives. Consequently, the sport and development sector goes on the defensive, recognizing that only ‘some’ initiatives yield positive outcomes under ‘certain’ circumstances. To restore credibility, there is an urgent need to challenge entrenched practices. Perhaps, one could look at the guiding principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) for inspiration.

The UNCRC is the international legal framework regarding the rights of children adopted in 1989 by the UN General Assembly. The Convention has 54 articles on the various civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that children are entitled to, covering the four main areas of survival, development, protection and participation. Due to its near universal ratification and its emphasis on the child’s right to play and recreation, the UNCRC is considered a key milestone in the evolution of the sport and development sector.

Child Rights Based Programming (CRBP) is a methodology that evolved out of the guiding principles of the UNCRC. It is premised on a shift in perspective from the traditional notion of duty-bearers merely ‘providing’ or ‘protecting’ rights, to one where children realize their rights through meaningful participation. In this context, child participation goes beyond mere involvement; it entails active engagement, positioning children as protagonists.

The overarching aim of CRBP is to establish conditions wherein children can exercise self-determination. Adults and state parties begin to view children not as objects of rights but as subjects of rights. Children gain the opportunity to articulate concerns, share perspectives, process feedback from adults, and self-direct their involvement in activities. CRBP, therefore, represents a transformative approach built on notions of co-participation and mutual accountability rather than adult supremacy.

In the context of sport and development, CRBP presents an opportunity to move beyond functionalist approaches and embrace a collaborative model. Empowerment, within this framework, is not affirmed through adult-determined milestones but is enabled through an institutionalized process of allowing children to actively express their views at all stages of implementation. The narratives that so emerge get flipped, prompting a subtle transition from “we empowered” to “we were empowered.” Children are told “it is your right to play” instead of “it is good to play.” A coach who previously dictated key takeaways is now prompted to ask, “Why do you think we held this session?” or “How can we make it better?

There has been a common assumption that any program that encourages physical activity is good for children. But research has shown sessions that are too structured and inflexible, featuring only step-by-step instructions, lead to negative, or even traumatic experiences. In fact, children often demand playtime separately from supervised physical education classes so that they still get to “play how we want to with our friends.” Respecting children’s quest for autonomy while ensuring a secure environment free of judgement and fear is thus central to participatory methodologies. Children usually refer to this ideal state as “adults being there but not being there!

The primary obstacle to fully embrace such methods has been the difficulty in consistently determining what truly serves the best interests of children since their perspectives and views can often be abstract. Additionally, children's responses while evaluating programs may seem puerile or lack coherence, causing facilitators to disregard or dismiss their input altogether. Moreover, since their cognitive abilities are constantly evolving, the tools and methods used need a high degree of flexibility to adequately adapt to the varying ages and developmental stages.

While this is a genuine challenge, it still doesn’t justify the complete exclusion of children’s voices. Though their responses may seem facile when assessed through an adult lens, it's crucial to recognize that they are entirely reasonable from children’s own viewpoint. Rather than expecting children to conform to the adult worldview or articulate impact in the language of mainstream development discourse, CRBP necessitates efforts to contextualize responses. This ensures that programs are scheduled, reviewed, monitored, and assessed based on insights shared directly by children rather than only going by what adults ‘feel’ or funders demand.

The enduring success of sport and development initiatives ultimately relies on the willingness, trust, and continued enthusiasm of participants, irrespective of the quantum of resources and tools arranged by facilitators. When child rights-based approaches are revived, children get to view themselves as rights-holders and not recipients of benevolence, thereby rebalancing the power dynamics within programs. Moreover, when adults and state parties perceive their involvement as a duty rather than an act of kindness, it ‘brings them back to ground’ and fosters greater accountability on their part. Above all, such approaches help children discover their own political power by using forums to advocate for each other, thereby truly building the credibility and legacy of the sector.

Image credit: Khelo Rugby Project, Future Hope


Learning Design Consultant (Freelance)
Bengaluru, India


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