CRC@25: A tribute to child rights champion Judith Ennew

I first met Judith Ennew at a lunchtime seminar in London. She talked for over an hour, almost entirely without notes. She was compelling, controversial and charismatic. I can’t remember what the topic was, but one phrase run through my head after she finished speaking: “All rights for all children all the time”.

This was Judith’s mantra. She took children’s rights seriously, pushing the envelope on the implications of rights to research with children, and their participation and citizenship. A social anthropologist by training, Judith helped to redefine notions of children and childhood recognizing them as capable and competent beings with clear and important perspectives on their lives. Her seminal ‘Street and Working Children’ (1994) book, along with the groundbreaking ‘Children in Focus: A Manual for Participatory Research with Children’ (1997), co-authoured with Jo Boyden, were essential reading for any aspiring child rights professional or researcher-practitioner.

The 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Children provides us with the opportunity to reflect, remember and honour those who work hard to make the principles outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child a reality.

Judith’s contribution to child rights spans several decades preceding and following the signing of the Convention. Recent tributes trace the arc of her career, from hairdresser to Cambridge PhD and activist researcher and professor. Her extraordinary life is captured in a recent article published in Children’s Geographies.

What many of her colleagues in academia and within the human rights community didn’t know was that Judith held a strong Christian faith. I never really got to the bottom of how she came to faith, but she embraced the opportunity to explore this element of her life through our collaboration together. True to her nature, Judith didn’t conform to any Christian stereotype. She was a fallen angel – not averse to the odd cigarette, partial to a strong gin and tonic and quite prepared to use colourful language to get her point across. She didn’t suffer fools gladly.

A short time after that talk, I had lunch with Judith in her house full of dogs and books near Cambridge. Judith was not only a wonderful cook, but had a huge and generous heart. We hatched a plan over soup to hold a workshop in Cambridge to examine the intersection between Child Rights, Christianity and Development. The resulting book – ‘Questioning the Basis of Our Work – Child Rights, Christianity and Development’ (2004) was published through Black on White, a publishing arm of Knowing Children – a child rights NGO she established to further understanding and good practice on ethical research with children. We  joinedforces a few years later to publish ‘The Right to be Properly Researched: How to do Rights-based scientific Research with Children’ (2009) which captured much of what she’d learned about ethical research with children.

Judith had a passion for the most vulnerable children, and drafted a discussion paper on stateless children for World Vision in the Asia Region. Not content to leave it there, she tried to address the issue by creating an innovative programme with Karen refugees on the Thai-Burma border. She pioneered a simple approach called ‘I am who I am’ which provided stateless children with documented evidence of who they are to build proof of identity.

Judith lived out her convictions, and always sided with the underdog. When she lived in Bangkok, she regularly visited a group of West Africans jailed in Bangkok for drug trafficking related offenses. In keeping with her mantra, she believed that everyone should enjoy ‘all rights, all the time’. She tried to ensure that their human rights were being upheld, without condoning their actions.

Earlier this year, Judith came to visit her family in a small village a few miles from where I live in the UK. We met for lunch, and discussed finishing a project we’d begun on the Spiritual Rights of Children. She had suffered from ill health for all the years I’d known her, and was visibly frail. A couple of months later, I heard that Judith had died at her home in Kuala Lumpur.

Judith privileged those who society dismissed, and nurtured young child rights practitioners and researchers who will carry on her legacy. Those of us who spent time with her benefited from Judith’s guidance and wisdom. She would be provoking and urging us to do more as we approach this 25th anniversary of the Convention.

Discover World Vision's CRC@25 blog series.

About the Author

Paul Stephenson is the Senior Director Child Development and Rights Technical Cluster at World Vision International. The Child Development and Rights Team focuses on child protection, child participation, gender equality, disability inclusion and children’s spiritual nurture.  Paul has worked in humanitarian relief and development for 25 years, specializing in education, child rights and community development. Paul has worked in Latin America, Africa and Asia.