Reynaert, Didier; De Maeyer, Jessica (2017). 'Children’s rights and the capability approach: Discussing the institutionalised youth land' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


With the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter: UNCRC) in 1989, children’s rights have become a significant framework for re-thinking the social position of children in society. Generally, children’s rights are considered as entitlements, i.e. moral as well as formal or legal claims that can be enforced when necessary. These claims concern the recognition of children as active agents and autonomous persons, constructing their lives in there own right. With the recognition of children’s rights, children were acknowledged as meaningful subjects in the present, as ‘beings’, and no longer as mere passive objects, only significant as ‘becomings’.

Discussing children’s rights cannot be done without taking into account the historical and socio-cultural structuring of childhood in our society. This structuring can be grasped under what has been ascribed as the ‘youth moratorium’ or the ‘institutionalized youth land’. The notion of ‘youth land’ or ‘youth moratorium’ refers to the institutionalization of childhood into “preparatory arenas that implement a principle of integration by means of separation.” It can be considered as a result of a historical process in which children were gradually separated from the adult world with the aim to prepare them for adult life. Until today, the institutionalized youth land remains the horizon against which childhood in the (western) world is shaped.

In this presentation, we analyse what the meaning of this youth land is in contemporary thinking on children and childhood. Particularly, we will analyse whether this institutionalised youth land is challenging or rather creating or affirming inequalities both under children as well as between children and adults. We will do this by linking the framework of children’s rights with the framework of the capability approach, since both frameworks are exceptionally relevant to study inequality.


When children’s rights, understood as individual entitlements for children to certain resources, are for an important part situated in the institutionalised youth land, than the question raises how this institutionalised youth land impacts on children and how it can avoid having a negative impact on children. However, a rights-based approach does not seem to answer this question. Indeed, as proponents of the capability approach argue, having entitlements and resources is not sufficient since it gives no indication on the opportunities people have to use the resources. As Andresen et al. (2006) argue “(…) people are unequal in their capabilities of doing and being even with the same rights, social and physical infrastructure amount of money or the same panel of external assets.” At the same time, a rights-based approach remains silent on the diversity of contexts within which children make use of these recourses. Finally, it remains unclear how recourses structured in the institutionalised youth land relate to recourses in the broader society, i.e. how a child and youth policy relate to the broader social policy. This is an important question appealing to the quest of solidarity in society, especially when it can be observed that the interest of children can come into conflict with the interests of adults. Complementing a children’s rights framework by the capability approach might overcome some of these critiques. 

When evaluating existing scholarly work on children and children’s rights in relation to the capability approach, it seems that the capability approach has a rather ambiguous position vis-à-vis this topic. Certain interpretations of the capability approach highlight the individual agency and autonomy of a person, also in relation to children. However, other interpretations emphasise the particularity of children under the capability approach with notions of childhood that move towards emphasizing protectionism or even paternalism under the presupposition of  “special priority for children”. The key question is of course in what children and childhood differ from adults and adulthood (or other phases in life), and whether these differences justify a different treatment or even ‘special priority’ under the capabilities approach. In this presentation, we will analyse this issue. The consequences for the construction of the institutionalized youth land will be equally addressed.

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