UN: Children in street situations lost in UN translation

A serious translation error occurred in several language versions of the General comment No 21 on children in street situations.

As Daniel Stoecklin recalls in his editorial (PDF 246 Ko) published on the website of the International Institute for the Rights of the Child, the English version entitled “General Comment on Children in Street Situations” was adopted first. It was then translated into the other official languages ​​of the United Nations (French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic).

But the French version refers to “General Comment on Street Children”. In the Spanish version, the term “street children” (niños de la calle) is also used. The Chinese version 街头 流浪 儿童 (jietou liulang ertong) is not an accurate translation either because it refers to “children wandering in the streets”.

Expert on child’s rights and professor of sociology at the University of Geneva, Daniel Stoecklin, calls on members of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to promptly correct the error.

“Street children” vs “Children in street situations”

These translations are plain wrong and many (including the undersigned) have asked questions of the Committee, which claims to have “found this anomaly but without being able to identify any justifications” (in a personal communication), and pledged to issue a “corrigendum”. This will restore consistency with the official terminology of the CRC, which, since 2009, has adopted the term “children in street situations”, with notable encouragement from Jean Zermatten, the then president (Stoecklin, 2017). The call for input on this comment was therefore made under the heading “children in street situations”.

One of those active in the field, Edwin Boevé, Director of Dynamo International-Street Workers Network, noted in his email of 24 January to the CRC that:

“In fact, the term ‘children in street situations’ illustrates well what the general comment demonstrates, namely the fact that these are children … ‘who have developed close links with public places and for whom the street is an essential element of their identity and their daily life’. Children who find themselves, for a short medium or long period, in the street and for many and varied reasons. Every child’s situation is unique and singular. The term “street situation” encompasses the fact that it is indeed a passage, a dynamic situation, and that it is not fixed.”

“Street children”: a stigmatizing and simplistic term

The emphasis on the dynamics of the street situation, and therefore on causes that cannot be reduced to the responsibility of either the child or its parents, avoids the stigma attached to the expression “street child” (or “child of the streets”).

To understand the fundamental difference between these two expressions, let’s take a more concrete case and replace the word “child” with any first name. There is a world of difference between “Peter of the streets” and “Peter in a street situation”:

  • The first is a stigmatizing reduction, implying that Peter is a ragamuffin who has all the traits of a street child
  • The second illustrates the situation, as experienced by Peter, looking for a temporary solution to his problems

The spirit of the General Comment n° 21 at risk

The consequences are important: repression or conscience-stricken victimization on the one hand, support for a child exercising his or her rights on the other. Beyond the literal translation error, the question is not just rhetorical: it threatens the very spirit of general comment by conveying regressive concepts and approaches. That the Committee is quickly correcting this error is to be welcomed.


Also on our website:
Learn more:
  • Editorial of Daniel Stoecklin (PDF 246 KB) published on 23 February 2018 on the website of the International Institute for the Rights of the Child
  • Contributions of Daniel Stoecklin for the General comment on Children in street situations, 12 April 2016 (PDF 171 KB)
  • Letter (PDF 300 Ko) sent on 24 January 2018 by Edwin de Boevé to Mr. Gastaud, member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
  • Written submission (PDF 113 KB) for the General Comment on children in street situations from Dynamo International – Street Workers Network, April 2016
  • Report (PDF in French, 1 MB) on the European consultation on children and young people in street situations organised by Dynamo International in partnership with the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) in Bruxelles on 18-19 avril 2016
  • Contribution of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE) to the draft General Comment on Children in Street Situations, April 2016 (PDF in French, 161 KB)
  • Contribution of del Comité de los Derechos del Niño/a – Uruguay (CDNU) to the draft General Comment on Children in April 2016 (PDF in Spanish 184 KB)
  • The General comment No 21 on children in street situations : English (PDF 304 KbB), French (PDF 508 KB), Spanish (PDF 395 KB), Arabic (PDF 582 KB) and Chinese (PDF 699 KbB)
  • The different language versions of General comment No. 21 on children in street situations online
UN: Children in street situations lost in UN translation