Alumni ProfileKathy Vandergrift '69
Changing the way the world sees children

kathyTalk to Kathy Vandergrift ’69 about her work and you rarely hear her use the first person singular. She is “we,” as in, “When we started raising the issue of children caught in armed conflict …”

So she was caught by surprise when UNICEF international called to ask if she, singular, would come to Barcelona, Spain, on May 5 to receive the 2008 Aldo Farina Prize, a global prize awarded biannually to recognize “outstanding leadership and sustained contribution” to child rights advocacy.

“Children’s advocacy work best happens in collaboration,” Vandergrift said. “We hope the international recognition of this award will help to advance the work for children’s rights in Canada.”

Since 2006 Vandergrift has been chair of a collaborative group of 10 non-governmental organizations called the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. “On a number of issues—from the impoverished situation of many aboriginal children to the protection of girls from sexual exploitation—we’re trying to educate the public and hold the Canadian government accountable to their obligations under the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Vandergrift said.

The focus on Canada’s children is both old and new for Vandergrift. Back in the 1980s, she worked in Alberta for the Christian social justice organization, Citizens for Public Justice. She then went on to work for the mayor of Edmonton, Alta., a member of Parliament, and as a policy director for World Vision Canada, her interest in the welfare of children becoming more global.

“In many developing countries, 40 percent of the population is under the age of 18,” Vandergrift said. “In a global society, if we don’t address their needs we won’t have a stable future.”

Over the past 10 years Vandergrift has devoted a great deal of energy to the plight of children around the world caught in armed conflict—forced to be child soldiers, made objects of sexual violence, separated from their families. She has chaired international coalitions and caucuses, written policy papers and addressed world leaders at the United Nations, both in the General Assembly and the Security Council.

“We have been able to change the way the world sees children in conflict,” she said. “Ten years ago, some leaders bragged about how young their soldiers were. That is no longer acceptable. Now we say it’s a war crime to use children as soldiers. Protecting children has become a matter of international peace and security.”

The matter has hardly been resolved. But Vandergrift has returned her focus to Canadian children because, she said, “I realized that if Canada doesn’t improve its respect for children’s rights at home, it can’t be a global leader on the subject. How well a society looks after its children is a barometer of the health of the society.”

That’s a belief rooted in Vandergrift’s reading of scripture. “Some people say, ‘Why, as a Christian, are you working for children’s rights?’ They see ‘rights’ in a context of humanistic self-fulfillment. But in the context of covenant, we see ‘rights’ as the respect due to children who are full persons made in the image of God, who need space to develop all their capacities. That’s the perspective we need to bring to the debates on the rights of children.”