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In June 2012, I sat in a circle with 25 children and teenagers, listening to them present detailed critical analyses of Peru’s Law on Children and Adolescents (Código de los Niños y Adolescentes, from here on out simply ‘código’). Small groups of kids had spent the past several hours comparing the current law to a set of proposed changes, identifying potentially positive changes and listing their various concerns about both the old and new laws. Most of these kids were working children involved in organisations of child and adolescent workers. They had come together for a workshop to kickoff an advocacy campaign that would argue for their own set of changes to the código.
During this workshop they discussed the potential implications of the policy changes, as well as the assumptions about childhood embedded in both the original and new versions of the law. The old policy, while it had problems, was fundamentally rooted in the idea of children as subjects of rights. The proposed new policy, however, seemed to revert to older views of children primarily as passive objects of protection and/or correction.
Kids noted the proposed changes added frequent references to “under the supervision of parents”, or “with their parents’ permission”, limiting their autonomy. They talked about how they, as kids, had not been consulted in the drafting of this law about them because the authorities think that “a group of adult experts know what should be done with the law”, and that “we can’t make decisions, adults are more capable of deciding about childhood”. They criticised the articles of both the old law and the new law that criminalised children’s work. The adults drafting the new código, they concluded, did not see kids the way that they saw themselves: as capable citizens with the right to actively participate in political, social, and economic life.
A national movement of working children
The kids who planned and facilitated this workshop were national and local leaders in Peru’s movement of working children – a movement with a nearly 40-year history of organising working children in a collective struggle for their rights, dignity, and well-being. Made up of small base groups located in schools, churches, and neighbourhoods around the nation, the movement today is a multi-organisational, national network of nearly 10,000 working children and adolescents between the ages of eight and 17, supported by a few hundred adults.
The movement of working children aims to decriminalise and de-stigmatise children’s work as well as directly challenge the ‘end child labour’ approach of the International Labor Organisation. They argue instead for a more nuanced policy approach that would protect working children from exploitation and harmful working conditions, but allow for and value children’s work when it is done in dignified and safe conditions that do not interfere with their learning and development. The movement’s contributions to this policy debate are absolutely vital and deserve serious consideration. Moreover, it offers the world an important and profoundly visionary model for not only non-hierarchical, intergenerational collaboration, but also for the creation of communities where children are deeply respected and valued. And, through the practice of egalitarian and caring intergenerational relationships, the movement also substantially improves the daily lives and well-being of working children.
Challenging the child/adult binary
Participants in Peru’s movement of working children have a distinctive understanding of childhood that emphasises children’s capabilities and their fundamental equality with adults. They argue that children should be seen as legitimate and valuable participants in all aspects of community life: economic, social, cultural, and political. This does not mean that they ignore children’s particular vulnerabilities nor that they remove all adult responsibility for children’s well-being. Rather, they see children as social subjects with inalienable rights and their own distinctive knowledge and contributions to offer to their communities based on their lived experiences as children. The movement emphasises children’s abilities to learn new skills, including the skills of self-organisation, advocacy, and activism, and the need for adults and children to work together in an equal partnership so that both groups can share their expertise and learn from one another. Through the movement, children become skilled facilitators, organisers, and participants in vibrant democratic debate.
To create meaningful collaborations with genuinely shared decision-making power, both children and adults in the movement have to challenge their own internalised assumptions about childhood and adulthood. They have to question the ideas that adults know best, that children don’t really understand the issues, and that adults should be ‘in charge’. There are regular opportunities to discuss ideas about childhood, and kids and adults in the movement have a lot of experience reflecting on the different paradigms of childhood. As one adult participant explained to me, “in order to change how adults treat kids, you also have to change how they think about kids.” And, I would add, you also have to change how kids think about themselves.
In addition to fostering new ways of thinking about childhood, the movement of working children has built a distinctive organisational culture grounded in collaboration, care, and respect for children. The relationships between the adults in the movement, called colaboradores, and the organisations of children and adolescent workers are deeply personal and emotionally-rooted. They are also political, in that they are explicitly understood by everyone involved as prefiguring or practicing a more egalitarian mode of interaction.
Adults remind kids to call them by their first names. They talk with them openly and honestly about the choices available to them and encourage them to make their own decisions, trying all the while to step back, listen, and let kids take the lead in the movement. In this context, working children feel respected, come to see themselves as more knowledgeable, powerful, and competent, and increase their confidence in their own voices. This culture of collaboration facilitates individual children’s development as social, political, and economic subjects who stand up for their rights as children and as workers.
The movement’s collaborative intergenerational culture and deep respect for working children’s capability, dignity, and rights provides an important structure of support for working children as individuals. My research suggests that the children who participate in the movement are expressive, direct, proud of their identities as workers, comfortable speaking in public, and more than willing to share their thoughts and ideas with adults. They are willing to say what they believe and to challenge injustices when they see them. They know that they have a group of people who will stand with them if they encounter problems or violations of their rights.
In the longer term, anecdotal evidence from adult colaboradores with many years of involvement in the movement indicates that those who have served in leadership positions, especially at the national level, have gone on to have a great deal of success as social workers, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals, and have experienced substantial upward mobility while also continuing to have a commitment to helping others via their work. Many also continue their involvement with the movement or become active in other working-class organisations.
Peru’s movement of working children provides an important service to working children by supporting their development as empowered and engaged members of their communities. The movement has also argued clearly and persuasively for the importance of listening to working children and including their voices in the policy debates about child labour. But it is my view that this movement has even more to offer those of us interested in children’s rights and children’s political agency: it provides a powerful model for creating deep, meaningful, and egalitarian forms of intergenerational collaboration and interaction.