|Signing of the call for action. Candidates representing all four political parties contesting the general elections attended the high-level event.|
By Abhijit Shanker
7 December 2011 - The urgent need to create and sustain a high level of political visibility to advance the rights of children for their survival, development, protection and participation is the sine qua non for propelling and catalyzing action for a political and equity-based agenda for children.
Following the 2010 Situation Analysis (SitAn) for Children and Women, an assessment of the political environment (including the actions of political parties and other duly appointed bodies for the November 2011 national and regional elections), UNICEF Guyana sought to create a space to drive the creation of a “Political Equity-based Agenda for Children.”
Two significant national outcomes resulted from this action:
>> The articulation, first, by the political parties contesting the elections of their priorities and intended actions for children and, second, by children themselves of what they could expect from the parties - the expressions of which set the stage for stronger political will with a focus on equity; and
>> The signing of a "Call for Action" – a written commitment by the parties to always work toward the progressive realization of children's rights, including upholding the best interests of the child within or outside government; ensuring that children are prioritized on the national development agenda with particular focus on ensuring equity; and, continuous monitoring and action with regard to respect, protection, and fulfillment of the rights of children from an equity perspective.
Political action and commitment to the rights of children, who comprise 39 per cent (approximately 300,000) of Guyana’s population under 18 years of age, has been largely absent during the planning and implementation stages for the forthcoming national and regional elections in Guyana. Prior to the implementation of this UNICEF initiative, there was no clear statement of specific actions to be taken to support a children’s agenda in relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
This gap was exacerbated by the fact that there was little discussion in the public sphere as to what actions would be needed to address prevalent inequities for the population residing in the interior regions of the country. Furthermore, an assessment of the political parties’ manifestos revealed an urgent, ongoing need for development that incorporated a child-focused approach and actions ingrained in principles that take into account the best interests of children.
UNICEF identified and acted on an observed opportunity to transform the political debate from one whose agenda focused on polarizing issues of race and marginalization to a win-win platform spotlighting Guyana’s commitment to raising the profile of children. Additionally, where a void was perceived in the programming environment with respect to children’s participation, UNICEF sought to advocate for and hold duty-bearers accountable to meeting and upholding the rights of children as contained in the CRC and other sources of international law ratified by Guyana.
In this context, UNICEF Guyana sought, through increased advocacy and the creation of partnership with the Rights of the Child Constitutional Commission, the Guyana Elections Commission and the political parties, to ensure Guyana’s commitment to making children visible and influencing the Political Equity-based Agenda for Children.
UNICEF Guyana took up this initiative with the following objectives:
>> To transform the political landscape through the strategic creation and engagement of partnerships - beyond traditional relationships - to advance the equity agenda for children.
>> To bind the political parties to action through the articulation and signature of the call for action.
>> To leverage results for children through the parliamentary and non-parliamentary political parties in the post-election period by their written agreement to “continuous monitoring and taking action to ensure the respect, protection and fulfillment of the rights if all children in Guyana, with attention to equity” among other things.
>> To use the signed commitment as a tool for accelerating action from the Presidency, the highest office in the country.
>> To maximize results for children through the establishment of “champions for children” and a child rights observatory (part of the monitoring and evaluation component of the initiative) and through strengthening of the Children’s Parliament and UNICEF’s own engagement with Parliament.
Implementation. UNICEF and the Rights of the Child Commission (RCC) organized a high-level event and persuaded each of the political parties to articulate its position, vision and plans for children for the next four years and to sign a call for action with respect to those statements. The event took place on neutral political ground with pre-set basic ground rules to ensure that each party had a fair chance to outline their plans. The event also generated an opportunity for the Prime Minister of the Children’s Parliament and its opposition party leader to elaborate the respective actions the children of Guyana could expect from them. The voice of the Children’s Parliament (and UNICEF’s support of this institution) is influential as it reflects the broad role of Parliament on issues of national concern, and it can be used to apply pressure on the executive branch of government to ensure children’s rights are realized.
Progress and Results
Signing of the call for action. Candidates representing all four political parties contesting the general elections attended the high-level event, co-hosted by UNICEF, where they outlined their plans with respect to the Political Equity-based Agenda for Children and signed the commitment to make children visible. More specifically, the call for action commits not only the winning party to act once elected, but it also commits those parties who do not win the elections to act, extending their obligation as duty bearers.
Monitoring mechanisms. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) lies at the core of UNICEF’s work to promote equity and constitutes an important cross-sector component within the Country Programme.
In the context of this initiative, UNICEF has been at the forefront of supporting and monitoring Guyana’s normative and institutional framework, especially with regard to children. To that end, and in line with Guyana’s constitutional changes and the subsequent parliamentary reform, five human rights commissions (covering Rights of the Child; Women and Gender Equality; Indigenous Peoples; Ethnic Relations; and Human Rights) have been established. All of these constitutional commissions are mandated to, inter alia, monitor compliance and make recommendations (including on legislation and policy) so as to advance the interests and state of human rights in the country. Furthermore, UNICEF has partnered with Parliament to strengthen its Select Committees, thereby enabling them to scrutinize draft laws, oversee the implementation of laws and policies by the Government and reflect the interests of all citizens in their work.
Therefore, two critical layers for supporting and monitoring compliance with the call for action now exist: the first through the constitutional commissions, and the second through the parliamentary select committees (which comprise both Government and opposition members from all parties), to ensure that the articulated objectives are met. The challenge that remains is the creation and maintenance of the role of “champions for children” who will advance this agenda and strengthen the Children’s Parliament so that children themselves can monitor the progress promised by the political parties. Finally, monitoring (and subsequent evaluation) of this action must be cemented in the parties’ agendas so that children remain a priority.
UNICEF identified the need for consensus on this issue among the political parties, which led to the creation of the call for action and to the request for its signature by each of them. This situation developed within a socio-political context wherein an agenda for children had not been clearly articulated in any of the parties’ manifestos or plans.
Initially the parties questioned the necessity of signing the call for action, believing that its principles were already either reflected in their manifestos or evident through their support of national actions.
However, UNICEF and RCC overcame resistance through direct advocacy with each of the parties and leveraged the CRC as a “litmus test” to weigh the strength of their manifestos and records of support. In this respect, it was critical for both UNICEF and RCC throughout all discussions to maintain both the face and the stance of neutrality, reinforcing the lack of a hidden agenda and ensuring that the well-being of children was their single priority. In addition, UNICEF and RCC also needed to demonstrate clear support from the Guyana Elections Commission (based on its mandate over the electoral process itself) for the action.
Ultimately, the signing of the call for action on agreed neutral ground and the provision of equal time (in alphabetical order) to all parties for their presentations was critical to the success of the initiative. This seemingly small consideration played a significant role in the parties’ agreement to participate.
The following principles were used to guide the implementation of the initiative:
>> Consistent, clear and strong advocacy for children, i.e., keeping a spotlight on children, was critical at all times, given the likelihood that a children’s agenda could be lost in the national debate. Therefore, it was extremely important to always consider the context of what wins votes and to address the parties’ needs with respect to maintaining the priority of children on their agendas.
>> The articulation and signing of the commitment by the political parties had to be performed on neutral ground and through a trusted partnership. Collaboration with a body which had the authority through an Act of Parliament to promote and monitor the rights of children (in this case, the RCC) was an important factor in ensuring there was no hidden agenda, and in assisting with follow-up action.
>> Monitoring of the Presidential election process (including the nomination process and coordination with the main electoral body) remained critical to the implementation of the initiative. The election process - including development of the parties’ manifestos, rally reports, media interviews, and social media - was carefully monitored before any engagement of the parties was undertaken. This action permitted assessment of children’s standing and proposed placement on the agenda, which was coordinated with the Guyana Elections Commission.
>> Going forward, UNICEF Guyana must develop and enact a strong communications and advocacy strategy to provide effective follow-up support for the call for action, which is in progress. The use of communications for development (C4D) practices to influence social change, and the integration of results throughout other programme areas will help ensure that the goals of the new UNICEF Country Programme 2012-2016 can be fully met. These actions remain critically important since all parties need to understand the nature of UNICEF’s work and its reputation as a leading advocate for children as a precedent to ongoing discussions.
Political action for children remains a critical element to drive the equity agenda forward. UNICEF and RCC recognized that there must be partnership with those in the “driver’s seat,” including politicians and others who hold positions of power so that real and lasting change can take place for children. This initiative involved taking calculated, strategic risk in a setting where opposing parties do not openly meet or join in common cause - especially when they are called to sign a commitment which binds them to action, as in this case. Therefore, through consistent and tenacious advocacy, UNICEF and RCC advanced this cause as a win-win scenario for both the children of Guyana and the political parties, to whom they promoted an obligation to fulfill this commitment - not only in their public capacities, but also in their private ones as parents and guardians.
For its part, UNICEF, through its monitoring of the election process, recognized that there was a real lack of acknowledgement of children’s issues in the parties’ agendas. Steadfast action by UNICEF brought the parties together to serve this common purpose. The action resonated well with the people of Guyana, given the historically acerbic relations among political parties on matters of national concern. This issue therefore represented real change by the parties, made evident through their articulation of the priorities and their signing of the call for action.
This initiative serves as the impetus for further action toward meeting the objectives of the new Country Programme (2012-2016), especially as it relates to strategic planning, M&E (strengthening systems for continuous monitoring) and evidence-based programmes for equity-focused and gender-sensitive action on survival, development, protection, and participation of children and women.
There remains a need for critical analysis and knowledge sharing on issues affecting children, such as the causes of child and maternal mortality, disparities in and poor quality of education, gaps in the legal and policy base for child protection, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and factors within Guyana that circumscribe the participation of children and young people in decision making. Additionally, monitoring and analyzing resource allocations and prioritizing the most disadvantaged groups of children will also be embraced by the new Country Programme.
This initiative has brought to the forefront the need to continue exploring the root causes of inequities and to develop home-grown solutions that suit Guyana’s context and development. The anticipated improvement will be critical to ensuring “continuous monitoring and taking action to ensure the respect protection and fulfilment of the rights of all children in Guyana, with attention to equity” as committed to by signature of the parties.
The next steps toward implementation include:
>> Creation and use of the concept of “champions for children” which will be at the forefront of advocacy for implementation of the call for action (including continuous work with the political parties so that children’s issues become integral to their agendas).
>> Strengthening the existing partnership with Parliament (including capacity-building for the Parliamentary Select Committees) to support the actions of Government and non-governmental organizations toward implementation of the call for action.
>> Restructuring and strengthening the Children’s Parliament to empower children with a greater voice and ability to act to advance the agenda.