A Short History of the Youth Rights Movement

Freechild Institute Youth Rights Toolkit

To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. ―John Holt

As early as the 1860s, young people began protesting for more rights around the world. Working hard and earning meager wages, youth in Western nations demanded higher pay, fewer hours and access to more services. Later, as adults became allies in youth rights struggles around the world, young people fought for universal education, health care and more.

In the 1930s, an organization called the American Youth Congress produced a Declaration of Rights of American Youth, which they presented in front of the U.S. Congress. This was the first recorded effort by youth for youth to push a concise youth-focused policy agenda on the federal level. While they succeeded through the creation of the federal National Youth Administration, their efforts were ultimately dismissed because of the political affiliations of their membership.

During the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement included a lot of brash leadership by young people. Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat for a white woman, 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous launch of the modern movement. The youths at the Greensboro Sit-ins were 18 and 19 years old and in their first year of college. The Birmingham Campaign, focused on challenging the cultural, political, economic, educational, and social discrimination blacks faced in that Alabama city, was most successful when adult organizers actively engaged child protesters in calling for their rights. While these were youth rights-specific campaigns, they were successful civil rights movements that continue to inspire young people today.

In the 1960s and 70s, a youth liberation movement emerged around the idea that young people of any age could and should have the full and complete rights of all adults, and not just the limited ideas that were pushed around by well-meaning adults. According to those youth rights activists, children and youth of all ages should be allowed to vote, work, drive, own property, travel, have legal and financial responsibility, control their own learning, and have a guaranteed income. There were even more far-out elements of this platform that called for all young people to be able to use drugs and have sex without restraint. Some of these radical ideas were clearly differentiated from the youth rights movement, although some of the platform continues to influence individuals and organizations today.

In the mid-1990s a youth rights movement emerged on the Internet calling for society to pay attention to several parts of this platform. In other arenas, youth-led organizing has expanded towards completely youth-led campaigns in cities across the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, work in the United Kingdom and across Europe led to particular expansions of youth rights, including increased opportunities for civic engagement and voting rights being lowered in several nations.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, youth rights advocates have been active around the world. Youth in Chile have taken over the nation’s school systems in order to have more rights in schools. Youth in Scotland played a vital role in their nation’s referendum to stay part of the United Kingdom. Youth in the United States are organizing for social justice across the nation. Youth in Hong Kong are leaders in the pro-democracy movement.

Its important to understand that there is no single agenda for youth rights everywhere, all of the time. Instead, the youth rights movement is made of many, many agendas reflecting the diversity of young people around the world today. Following are some of the youth rights issues being addressed today.

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