Janusz Korczak was a renowned Polish-Jewish humanitarian, doctor, writer, and orphanage director.
Among his many achievements, Korczak made his greatest impact for children everywhere as a tireless and eloquent advocate for the rights of the poor and orphaned child.
Our connection to Korczak extends far beyond the naming of our school. His life is also strongly connected to our work with street children; and it is a part of all our work at our Legal Aid Centre for Poor Children and in all of our child protection activities.
Korczak spoke of the need for a Declaration of Children’s Rights, as his biographer B.J. Lifton writes, “long before any such document was drawn up by the Geneva Convention or the UN General Assembly.” A copy of his declaration, never formally completed, is copied at the bottom of this document.
Our legal aid teams present Korzak’s declaration at all police stations where they represent children and to every judge and lawyer when in children’s courts.
We teach the precepts of Korczak’s declaration to our Mercy Centre staff and to every house mom and house dad, driver, cook, and tutor, and teacher.
We also follow his declaration, almost word for word, at our most special school – the Janusz Korczak School of Southeast Asia.
Our Korczak school, located on-premise at our Mercy Centre, is attended by several distinctly different sets of students.
The first set is comprised of our own children who cannot attend any other school, children with special needs. We also place older street children in this school who are too far behind their peers in their education to attend regular public school. We have had great success in helping these older children catch up with their peers and enter government school.
The second set of students are those children from our shelters at Mercy Center as well as from the surrounding slums who have high academic potential; and we prepare these children for international schools and university.
A third set includes adults living in the surrounding community who never had the opportunity to attend grade school or high school. We prepare these adults for equivalency exams to complete their primary and secondary school degrees.
Finally, the Korczak School is the centre of creative and vocational studies for all children living in Mercy Centre. After regular school and on weekends, our children take classes in art, music, and dance.
Janusz Korczak's Declaration of the Rights of the Child*
As a children's advocate, Janusz Korczak spoke of the need for a Declaration of Children's Rights long before any such document was drawn up by the Geneva Convention (Korczak: 1924) or the United Nations General Assembly ( Korczak: 1959). The Declaration he envisaged - not a plea for good will but a demand for action - was left uncompleted at the time of his death. Culling through "How to Love a Child", "The Child's Right to Respect", and other works, I have compiled the rights that Korczak considered most essential:
The child has the right to love. (Korczak: "Love the child, not just your own.")
The child has the right to respect. (Korczak: "Let us demand respect for shining eyes, smooth foreheads, youthful effort and confidence, Why should dulled eyes, a wrinkled brow, untidy gray hair, or tired resignation command greater respect?")
The child has the right to optimal conditions in which to grow and develop. (Korczak: "We demand: do away with hunger, cold, dampness, stench, overcrowding, overpopulation .")
The child has the right to live in the present. (Korczak: "Children are not people of tomorrow; they are people today.")
The child has the right to be himself or herself. (Korczak: "A child is not a lottery ticket, marked to win the main prize.")
The child has the right to make mistakes. (Korczak: "There are no more fools among children than among adults.")
The child has the right to fail. (Korczak: "We renounce the deceptive longing for perfect children.")
The child has the right to be taken seriously. (Korczak: "Who asks the child for his opinion and consent?")
The child has the right to be appreciated for what he is. (Korczak: "The child, being small, has little market value.")
The child has the right to desire, to claim, to ask. (Korczak: "As the years pass, the gap between adult demands and children's desires becomes progressively wider.")
The child has the right to have secrets. (Korczak: "Respect their secrets.")
The child has the right to "a lie, a deception, a theft". (Korczak: "He does not have the right to lie, deceive, steal.")
The child has the right to respect for his possessions and budget. (Korczak: "Everyone has the right to his property, no matter how insignificant or valueless.")
The child has the right to education.
The child has the right to resist educational influence that conflicts with his or her own beliefs. (Korczak: "It is fortunate for mankind that we are unable to force children to yield to assaults upon their common sense and humanity.")
The child has the right to protest an injustice. (Korczak: "We must end despotism.")
The child has the right to a Children's Court where he can judge and be judged by his peers. (Korczak: "We are the sole judges of the child's actions, movements, thoughts, and plans . . . I know that a Children's Court is essential….")
The child has the right to be defended in the juvenile-justice court system. (Korczak: "The delinquent child is still a child …. Unfortunately, suffering bred of poverty spreads like lice: sadism, crime, uncouthness, and brutality are nurtured on it.")
The child has the right to respect for his grief. (Korczak: "Even though it be for the loss of a pebble.")
The child has the right to commune with God.
The child has the right to die prematurely. (Korczak: "The mother's profound love for her child must give him the right to premature death, to ending his life cycle in only one or two springs . . . Not every bush grows into a tree.")