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The Children's Advocate

Lois Whitman, the founding director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, speaks for the children who have no voice or choice.

Lois Whitman
“The treatment of kids is devastating,” says Whitman. “Children have no choice and they have no voice. So the Children’s Rights Division has to speak for them.” Photography by Deborah Feingold

It happened about a decade ago in Sri Lanka, but Lois Whitman hasn’t been able to get it out of her mind. While she was doing research for Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division, she met a little girl. The child, who didn’t even know her own age or who her parents were, had been living on the street. Then she got a job working as a domestic in someone’s house. Whitman breathed a sigh of relief; at least the poor child had a roof over her head. But the reason she could talk to Whitman—in a courthouse, as it were—was because her employers had beaten her so severely that they had broken her arm.

It wasn’t the first heartbreaking story that Whitman NLAW’76 had heard. Since founding the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch in 1994, she has listened to accounts by 8-year-olds who were forced to become assault rifle-toting soldiers; 6-year-olds who worked in factories from dawn to dusk; teens who were serving life sentences for felony murder; and children of all ages who have been sexually or physically abused, or both.

“The treatment of kids is devastating,” says Whitman, who is also the director of the Children’s Rights Division, which is based in New York City. “Children have no choice and they have no voice. So the Children’s Rights Division has to speak for them.”

If children are the ultimate underdogs, Whitman is their über-advocate. A petite woman with short silver hair and horn-rimmed glasses, she’s perfect for the part: she looks like a kindly grandmother.

Saving children wasn’t something Whitman set out to do, and it took her nearly three decades to make it happen. After she graduated from Smith College in 1948, she earned a master’s in social work from Columbia University and worked in the field. She married Martin J. Whitman, an investment adviser, and, after raising three children, decided to go to law school. She was 46. “It was around the time of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and I saw the social changes lawyers were able to make,” she says. Whitman chose Rutgers School of Law–Newark because of its “long history of being concerned about social justice and wonderful faculty.”

After practicing poverty law at Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services in Brooklyn and then at the New York City Human Rights Commission, she joined Human Rights Watch in 1984. Ten years later, she set up the Children’s Rights Division and headed up investigations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. “Our idea is not just to issue reports,” she says. “It is to make change.”

During her tenure, the division persuaded Northern Ireland to halt the physical torture of children in holding cells, got several nations to raise the age of child soldiers, and has had what she calls “some success” in reforming child labor laws. “We supplied on-ground information to the International Labour Organization, which is working on setting standards for decent work for domestic workers,” she says.

Some of the division’s work is closer to home. For instance, it is taking the fight for juvenile justice to California, where 2,500 to 3,000 children younger than 18 have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, essentially a sentence to die there, many of them for felony murder convictions. “With half of these children, adults were involved in the crime and many actually received lighter sentences than the young people even though the adult pulled the trigger,” Whitman says. “This is really, really shocking.”

The Children’s Rights Division, operating on an annual budget of $1.5 million with a staff of nine, carefully chooses its issues. “The money we have is very modest for what we do,” Whitman says. “One of the hardest things to do is deciding where to put our limited resources.”

This gets her thinking about the 20,000 children, some no older than 6, who are forced to work in the artisanal gold mines of Mali. “They handle mercury, a toxic substance that is particularly harmful to children, with their bare hands,” she says. “It’s used to separate the gold from the ore, and when they burn it off, they inhale the fumes.”

These days, Whitman doesn’t travel to conduct research anymore; instead, she devotes her time to management and editing reports, putting in four days a week at her Manhattan office. Her days are supposed to end at 5 or 6 p.m., but because she has people in the field all over the globe, she sometimes finds herself answering emails in the wee hours.

Near her desk, she keeps a framed black-and-white photo of her six smiling grandchildren; she spends as much time with them and her “three wonderful children” as she can. “I’m surprised and delighted that the Children’s Rights Division has been able to make a difference,” she says. “I know I can retire at any time; the people on my staff are creative, effective, and brave, and they can take over for me whenever I want to leave.” Whitman glances at the photo. She’ll keep coming in as long as she can to make the world a better place for children like them.
                                                                                                                                                  — Nancy A. Ruhling