Commentary Human Rights

Passing the Children’s Act In Liberia: A Story from the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative

Mary Pittman

For hundreds of years, to be a girl in Liberia was to be relatively powerless. To address that, advocates helped the Liberian Senate sign the Children's Rights Act into national law in 2011.

For hundreds of years, to be a girl in Liberia was to be relatively powerless. You had no say over whether you were married off in childhood or even whether you attended school. That all changed when two fellows of the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative (AGALI) from Liberia, Aisha Cooper Bruce and Rosana Schaack, led an advocacy campaign to pass the Children’s Act. The Liberian Senate signed this landmark legislation into national law in 2011. AGALI works to improve adolescent girls’ health, education and livelihoods by providing Latin American and African leaders with the skills and resources they need to successfully advocate for policies, programs, and funding benefiting adolescent girls.

The Fellows, trained and funded by the Public Health Institute’s AGALI program, spearheaded a national advocacy campaign – partnering with children’s rights activists and empowering members of the Liberian Children’s Parliament to advocate on their own behalf. “We noticed that since the NGOs have tried and failed [to pass the law], it was the time for the children of Liberia to take their stand,” said Ma Hawa Ngaima, former Deputy Speaker of the Liberian Children’s Parliament, in the video below.

Today, Liberian girls can say no to physical and emotional abuse and yes to education and health care—and have the backing of national law to uphold these rights. For instance, if parents try to force girls to submit to the traditional practice of genital cutting, the law protects girls’ right to say no.

“Because [the Act] was a girl-centered issue, the girls owned the process, they spoke up more… the girls took the Children’s Law as ‘if this law can be passed, my life will be changed,’” explained AGALI Fellow Cooper Bruce.

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To learn more about the Children’s Law, see this informational policy brief created by AGALI.

Commentary Sexual Health

Treating Teenagers as People: The Debate Over Adolescent Medical Privacy

Amanda Marcotte

A parent's freakout over the possibility that her teenage daughter might talk to a doctor without a parent present is an important reminder that adolescent rights to medical privacy are ill-defined and need to be clarified, to protect teenage health.

Much of the Internet lit up last week either laughing at or debating this story of a Michigan mother named Christy Duffy who went into total meltdown mode upon seeing a sign at the local hospital informing parents that “Michigan Medical Records access laws” require “a nurse to have a 5 minute private conversation with your child.”

Duffy is clearly one of those parents who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes shielding kids from any acknowledgment that sex exists will stifle their desire to have it.

This led to some hilarious full-blown right-wing hysteria. “I had to cut the conversation short because I was not letting my girl out of my eyesight or earshot,” Duffy told One News Now, a Christian right website. “Not when it was clear that these people were angling to undermine my parental authority.”

The levels of self-righteous delusion are truly a wonder to behold. “I am the Mom. I will pick who can talk to my kids about sex and drugs,” Duffy says of her 17-year-old daughter, causing most people who remember being teenagers to laugh at her deluded notions of control. “And rock-n-roll, for that matter,” she added for good measure.

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Duffy spun an elaborate conspiracy theory about how the sign was part of grand plan by “the State” to garner control for financial reasons—it’s all pretty hazy, but by way of assuring us that she is perfectly rational, she notes: “I’m not into farming, camping, or living anywhere without serious, made-possible-by-the-grid facilities.” OK.

One News Now included a poll in the article asking its conservative readership how they felt about the story. By far, the most popular choice, at 71 percent, was “Do children belong to the parents…or the state?”

Cue dramatic music.

Sarcasm aside, the popularity of that poll answer should be deeply concerning, since it gets to the heart of one of the most dangerous ideologies peddled by the Christian right regarding the rights of minors. “Do children belong to the parents or the state” should be immediately recognizable as a false choice. Children are human beings and therefore are not property, and they do not “belong” to anyone.

By protecting the rights of minors, the state is not stealing them from their parents. You can’t steal what you didn’t own in the first place.

Yes, we give a lot of decision-making power to parents in our society, but that power should never be confused with ownership. Children’s status as “minors” is an acknowledgement that they are not capable of making all their own decisions yet and need someone to do some of that work for them. However—and this is critical—the idea of raising a child is that you gradually start shifting more and more of the responsibility for decision making from yourself to them. By the time most kids are 17, like Duffy’s daughter, they should be taking enough responsibility for themselves that they can make the transition to living outside of the house with ease when they turn 18, if that’s the best choice for them and their family.

As a child’s responsibilities grow, so should their rights, including the right to privacy. Yes, that includes medical privacy. Ideally, all doctors should be able to have a few minutes alone with children of all ages in situations when they believe screening for child abuse is warranted. But particularly when children become teenagers, they start to have all sorts of valid reasons that their parents should not be in the room with them for a solid chunk of a doctor’s visit. This goes double for children with overbearing parents. What if a teenager is having or is interested in sex and has important questions about staying healthy? Even if you have understanding parents, that can be a hard thing to ask in front of them; if someone like Christy Duffy is your mother, it’s basically impossible. Just for basic health and safety reasons, teenagers deserve a modicum of privacy.

This should all seem like common sense, but as the enthusiasm on the right for Duffy’s story shows, the “ownership” model of parenting—one, it must be pointed out, that is not recognized by the government, which absolutely does not allow you to treat children like property—collapses the difference between the rights and responsibilities of a toddler and those of a teenager. It stops being about what’s best for a child’s development into a grown adult and instead imagines children as nothing but vessels for the parental ego. Taken too far, you start to see cases like the Florida woman who kidnapped her own child in order to prevent her from being vaccinated and from being educated in a public school—in that case, the mother feared her daughter might unlearn some of the racist hatred she had been pouring in her ear.

In the particular case of Christy Duffy, and her overwhelming control issues regarding her daughter on the cusp of legal adulthood, it turns out that the fit being thrown wasn’t even a reflection of reality. According to the One News Now report, which was written to maximize right-wing reader panic, the hospital in question was just trying to clean up its medical records system and was not actually implementing some catch-all “separate child from parent” strategy. Duffy was conspiracy theory flipping out over a policy that doesn’t seem to actually exist.

But the thing is that policies like this should exist, because children are people, not property.

A real concern right now in our country is that our laws regarding adolescent rights to medical privacy are patchwork and confusing. Ideally, we would have a single, clear set of rights that adolescents enjoy, including the right to private consultation with doctors and the right to have their medical records not be shown to their parents. It should definitely include the right to contraception and abortion without parental notification, much less consent. Having this kind of clarity would go a long way toward reminding conservative parents that their children are people with rights, and not property to be treated however a parent sees fit.

Analysis Violence

What’s the Connection (If Any) Between Adolescent Drinking and Rape and Violence?

Does alcohol lead to rape and violence? And are parents responsible for adolescent drinking?

When two adolescent boys were found guilty earlier this month of raping a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, there was much discussion about rape culture, social media, and whether taking advantage of a passed out girl is just boys’ nature. Many media reports highlighted the drunken state of many of the kids present at the rape, and some argued that the girl’s drunkenness made her at least partially responsible for the abuse she suffered. Meanwhile, the boys’ drunkenness either was not mentioned at all, or was seen as making them less responsible for the attack.

One thing that didn’t elicit much disagreement was the issue of teenage drinking itself. “Where were the parents?” was a frequently asked question. “Why were these kids allowed to drink?” Alcohol and bad parenting, many people agreed, were the real culprits of this rape.

But is that really true? Does alcohol lead to rape and violence? And are parents responsible for adolescent drinking?

The answers to these questions are less straightforward than one might expect.

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It is certainly true that a large proportion of violent crimes involve alcohol use. This has been attributed to a variety of factors, including the fact that alcohol inhibits self-control and limits the ability to assess risk, and the fact that some people consume alcohol in preparation for their involvement in violent acts because they believe it will make them braver and stronger.

It is also true that people under the age of 21 consume alcohol regardless of the legal U.S. drinking age, and that many young people binge drink, that is, drink a lot of alcohol over a short period of time.

Younger adolescents are, however, less likely to be involved in alcohol-related violence than they are to be involved in any other violent crimes. And when you look at violent crimes committed by a male perpetrator on a female victim, there is no significant difference between the proportion of women attacked by men under the influence and the proportion of women attacked by men who did not appear to be drunk.

In other words, the fact that a man drinks does not make him any more or less likely to attack a woman.

The influence of parenting and parental drinking on teenage behavior is also not a straight shot when it comes to alcohol and violence. While adult binge drinking in the larger community is a strong predictor for binge drinking in teenagers and college students, parental problem drinking is not—or at least not directly. To summarize a number of quite complex family studies, drinking is not a problem for adolescents in and of itself, though it is obviously not healthy in excess. Rather, the problems are how they drink, how (not if) they see their parents drink, and what they learn to do generally about their emotions and conflicts.

Parenting matters, but, especially for older teenagers, so do peer pressure, societal norms, and genetic susceptibility to using alcohol.

My motivation for looking into the correlation between these issues is not merely academic. I come from Denmark, a country where alcohol use is normalized, even celebrated, among citizens, including teenagers. As I recall it, the main drink served at high school dances back home was beer. Did that make us rape each other? My recollection is that it did not.

This recollection seems to be substantiated by facts. In a recent survey of industrialized countries, Denmark topped the teenage drinking list, while the United States came in last. But rape estimates from Denmark and the United States suggest that women and girls are equally likely to be raped in both countries, or even slightly less likely to be raped in Denmark than in the United States. To put it differently, drinking more does not make Danish people rape more.

My point is not to say that alcohol was irrelevant to the Steubenville rape case. Obviously, the girl’s alcohol-induced unconsciousness enabled the crime in some way (not that it at all excuses the violent acts). I am also not trying to exonerate these teens’ parents of responsibility. I would like to think we have some influence over our children’s sense of right and wrong, and by that I include the notion that we have a responsibility to help people who cannot help themselves.

I do take issue with the notion that alcohol and bad parenting are what caused this crime. Alcohol is a poisonous substance that does damage to your health when consumed in large or even not so large quantities. Bad parenting has much the same effect. But neither ensures that you will commit a crime.