Children′s rights make uneven progress in Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.11.2019
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Children's rights make uneven progress in Germany

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child 30 years ago. How is the convention being implemented in Germany? DW visits children who know their rights — and have to fight for them.

Like balls on a pool table, the children ricochet from one side to the other. Their rain jackets shine in red, green, blue, pink and yellow as they run on the wet grey concrete of the playground at the Gottfried-Kinkel primary school in outside of the western German city of Bonn. A boy jumps into a puddle, a girl climbs up the ladder to a play tower. Laughter and loud shouts echo off the walls.

When a bell rings at the end of recess, everyone suddenly turns quiet. The children line up behind the teachers in rows of two and march into the classrooms. No fidgeting, no screaming. Prussian-style discipline at a modern-day German primary school?

"The children have set the rules for themselves," schoolteacher Caroline Herzog said. "Some are stricter than us teachers."

Anyone who turns around or makes noise while walking inside is admonished by their classmates. After three offenses, they get an entry in the class register. This was decided by the students' class council.

Children vote for sugar in school

Children at the Gottfried-Kinkel primary school are used to expressing their views, having a say in decisions and setting their own rules. That distinguishes the school from many others in Germany. The kids here are arbitrators when conflicts arise, they write minutes in the class council meetings and some are elected to a children's parliament.

Grundschule Gottfried Kinkel Bonn Oberkassel (DW/P. Hille)

Fourth-graders at the Kinkel school with their teachers Caroline Herzog (left) and Alexa Schmidt

"Actually, we almost run the school," says Moritz, 9 years old. "Only some decisions are still made by the teachers. Two weeks ago we had a very important candy vote in the children's parliament. We decided that we could eat sweets at school in exceptional cases, for example on birthdays, during school trips and otherwise once a week. I voted in favor. Children need some sugar, otherwise, they fall asleep."

Parents don't need to know everything

At school, the children learned about their rights, which were enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 30 years ago on Wednesday. This also includes the right for one's opinion to be heard. A right that is exercised daily at the Kinkel school and its class councils and the children's parliament.

For 9-year-old Hanna, it's the right to privacy that is paramount: "It is important if you want to write down a secret about your brother's girlfriend or keep something else to yourself," she says. "Parents and teachers don't have to know everything about us children."

Grundschule Gottfried Kinkel Bonn Oberkassel (DW/P. Hille)

Leon (9) knows that kids elsewhere have a hard time fighting for their rights

The fourth-graders are aware that children elsewhere cannot even exercise the right to education or a healthy diet. Leon, 9, said: "It's great where we live, but if we had even better children's rights in Germany, perhaps other countries could adopt that." For his schoolmate Mia, making sure every child has enough to eat is especially important. Fourth-grader Friederike said everything must be done to ensure that no child has to experience violence.

Is Germany a utopia for children's rights?

As child-friendly as the situation at the Bonn primary school may be, children's rights are in danger elsewhere in Germany. Around 50,400 children in Germany were threatened by violence and neglect last year, 10% more than in 2017, according to the latest figures from the Federal Statistical Office. Child protection organizations see further setbacks. Such obstacles are apparent, for example, in Berlin-Staaken, a district on the western outskirts of the capital, deemed a "social hotspot" by some. Here, one apartment block follows the next. Every third child lives in poverty, meaning that their family has less than 60% of the mean income.

Rudolf-Wissell-Siedlung in Berlin-Staaken (DW/D. Pundy)

Berlin-Staaken is considered a "social hot spot": unemployment rates are above the national average here

The "Jona's Haus," a meeting point for children and young people is housed in a 100-year-old brick villa. The building, with its spacious garden, used to be a primary school and is a stark contrast to the grey of the streets.

In the villa, 7-year-old school friends Izra and Osama practice turning cartwheels and somersaults in the large playroom. One room further Svetlana Nejelscaia helps a pupil with the application for an internship — all daily occurrences in Jona's Haus. The doors are open 365 days a year for children from the neighborhood. Kids there receive a free lunch and help with their homework. The facility is run by the Protestant Jona Foundation.

Stiftung Jona in Berlin-Staaken - Svetlana Nejelscaia (DW/D. Pundy)

Svetlana Nejelscaia helps a pupil applying for an internship

Svetlana Nejelscaia, the Jona Haus pedagogical director, said she knows how difficult life is for some of the kids in the neighborhood — and that their right to education is often in danger. Although many children regularly attend school, many of them have difficulties completing their schooling for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the parents have no higher educational qualifications and can't help with homework or speak insufficient German. Nejelscaia said she believes that a right to all-day care for pupils could improve the chances for those affected.

Mobile phones or not?

The Kinkel primary school in Bonn does provide all-day care, providing a space for children to eat lunch as well as supervision in the afternoon. "The children take on a lot of responsibility here," says Alexa Schmidt, one of the fourth-grade teachers who is responsible for promoting children's rights at the school. "They find good solutions."

Schmidt tells the story of parents who got in a row before a class trip. They argued about whether pupils were allowed to take their mobile phones with them. Schmidt passed the question — and decision — to the class council. "Within five minutes the children had found a compromise," she said. Some particularly anxious children were allowed to take their mobile phones with them, but the devices had to remain switched off.

The teacher is pleased that children's rights in Germany will soon be anchored in the country's constitution. "And I would be happy if children's rights were finally included in the official school curriculum, just like the multiplication tables," Schmidt said. "Children should not leave primary school without knowing their rights. I need to know my rights to exercise them."

Power to the pupils?

The children at the Bonn primary school are well aware of their rights. But, as 9-year-old Hanna pointed out: "Children also have responsibilities. Children's rights do not mean that we no longer have to tidy our rooms. No, we have duties, we have to go to school, we have to do our homework. That's part of education."

And what about taking over the school completely, doing without teachers and adults? They don't want that, the fourth graders agreed. A teacher's job was too stressful sometimes, they say.

And they would miss the running around in the playground.

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