Children’s Rights and Modern Slavery: Bridging a Gap in Literature and Practice

by | Sep 19, 2023

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About Naomi Lott and Pamela Vargas Gorena and Katarina Schwarz

Naomi Lott - Lecturer in Law, UCL; John Fell Research Fellow, University of Oxford; Rights Lab Visiting Fellow in Law, Survivor Support and Children’s Rights, University of Nottingham. Dr Naomi Lott’s primary research interests are in the field of children's rights, with a particular focus on children's economic, social and cultural rights, and particularly the right to play. Naomi completed a PhD at the University of Nottingham on the child's right to play, examining the right from conception through to implementation. Naomi has conducted research on modern slavery and children's rights in conjunction with the United Nations University, Delta 8.7, the ILO and IOM, and the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham. Naomi has recently completed a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford, and has published her work on the right to play in The Right of the Child to Play: From Conception to Implementation (Routledge, 2023). Pamela Vargas-Gorena is a Research Fellow in Human Rights and Anti-slavery Law at the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on mapping global anti-slavery legislation in order to understand trends, successes and failures. She is a former Chief Legal Adviser of the Cabinet Office in her home country, Bolivia.  As a former Director of a Non-Profit working with vulnerable children and head of various government departments, she has contributed and advised on the development of laws, policies and programmes at central and local levels. Her research background includes comparative law and jurisprudence as well as the assessment of government law, policies, and capacities. She holds an MSc in Public Policy from the University of Bristol, LLM in Constitutional Law and a LLM in Administrative Law from Latin American universities. Katarina Schwarz - Rights Lab Associate Director (Law and Policy Programme) and Associate Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy. Dr Katarina Schwarz leads the Rights Lab’s Law and Policy Programme. Her research interrogates the law and policy frameworks operating at the global, regional, and domestic level to determine the elements of effective anti-slavery governance and map trends, successes, and failures in this area. This includes work developing and analysing the Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database—the world’s first comprehensive database of the domestic legislation and international obligations of all 193 UN Member States with regard to slavery and related forms of exploitation.

Modern slavery is a children’s rights issue. Children’s rights are implicated before, during, and after exploitation. Yet, academic literature on modern slavery and exploitation rarely addresses children’s rights.

A systematic evidence review, for a project funded by the ILO and IOM ‘Research to Action’ scheme, examined academic literature at the intersection of two historically separate fields – modern slavery, and children’s rights – published between 2000 and 2022. It revealed a significant paucity of meaningful engagement across the two fields. The review identified 7,267 records that related in some way to modern slavery or children’s rights, with an increase in such literature published within this timeframe (18 records in 2000, and 119 in 2021). However, only 345 records were progressed for further analysis largely due to a lack of engagement with both fields. This shows that although modern slavery is a children’s rights issue, academic literature is neglecting to address children’s rights. This has significant implications for the development of legislation, policy, rehabilitation and prevention programmes, and practice. It is also revealing of a breach of children’s rights. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that children’s voices are heard in relation to all matters affecting them. Children’s voices should therefore be informing practices that intend to prevent, end, or lessen the impacts of modern slavery. If this was so, it would not be possible to discuss modern slavery, and in particular the modern slavery of children, without addressing topics relating to children’s rights.

The report published on our research, provides an in-depth analysis of 153 papers, those published from 2015-2022. Figure 16 from the report, included above, shows the extent to which the two fields of modern slavery and children’s rights intersect within the literature. Our research showed that children’s rights, and the children’s rights framework, were generally assessed to operate as a positive tool for addressing modern slavery, presenting benefits for children at risk of, experiencing, and recovering from modern slavery. With 124 records (81%) highlighting this positive relationship, it is possible to conclude that there is general agreement in the literature that greater incorporation of children’s rights across the modern slavery framework would be of considerable value.

How this can be done in practice, however, remains a point of tension. In particular, our research revealed a key tension between a paternalist/protectionist stance to modern slavery that advocates for an automatic blanket ban of child labour and child marriage, alongside other forms of modern slavery and exploitation, and a position that advocates instead for children’s agency and autonomy in their decision making surrounding their involvement with such practices. There was a strong connection in the literature between a child’s right to be heard and the topic of child labour. Here the focus centred on child activists who campaign against the stigmatisation and eradication of their work, advocating for lower legal ages for work. These studies claimed that protectionist approaches to child labour comprise age-based discrimination and ignore children’s social, familial, and cultural contexts. Instead, children called for the enforcement of working regulations and the protection offered by working rights – protection in work rather than from work – with minimum wages, limitations on working hours, and time for rest and leisure. The literature also pointed to the role of child labour in providing children with the means to realise their rights, such as education, health, and food. Conversely, the literature questioned whether children are ever able to enter potentially exploitative practices with full autonomy, pointing at the role of parents and the local community in framing their perceptions.

Whilst no children’s rights are more important than others (acknowledging the need of some rights’ fulfilment in order to realise other rights – without the fulfilment of the right to life, no other rights can be fulfilled), the literature engaged more meaningfully with rights to education, health, development, participation, and the best interests of the child. Few records addressed the interrelated nature and interdependency of children’s rights. All forms of exploitation affect children’s rights differently, at different points in the cycle of exploitation, and differently across distinct groups of children. The focus of the literature on a few children’s rights points to a lack of understanding of the children’s rights framework, and a need to widen the scope of research in this area.

The modern slavery of children is a child rights issue. Therefore research on this topic should not be removed from discussion of children’s rights. This review has shown that where the two fields of modern slavery and children’s rights have intersected, with meaningful discussion of both topics, it is of considerable value and offers critical insights. A expansion of such engagement would improve the possibility that modern slavery legislation, policies, programmes and practices were informed by the children’s rights framework

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