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Adults really need to listen to young people

By 9 a.m. on Election Day, 2 July, 2000, voters had formed long lines in Mexico City as they waited patiently to start a new chapter in Mexican politics.

The democratic process that day was a family affair. Across the street from each polling station, children were also lining up to make their voices heard in a vote designed especially for them.

One of the first to fill out and post her ballot in the ‘Consulta Infantil y Juvenil’ (Children’s Consultation) was Sandra Jimenez Loza, 13, one of the child rights activists who inspired millions of children to register their opinions. Adults really need to listen to young people,” she says with the smile and confidence of a seasoned campaigner.

The 13-year-old girl has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. She speaks slowly, with conviction, though with difficulty. Yet she spent much of her summer promoting the voting project and encouraging Mexican children to take part.

“The last thing that I would consider an obstacle is my disability,” she says. “If anything, it is a plus. When people see that I don’t consider it a problem, they see that they can also reach their goals.”

Shortly before Election Day, Jimenez Loza participated in a children’s radio programme in which she was interviewed about the Consulta by a panel of other children. The programme on Radio UNAM, a community station, received a record number of calls as children around the country phoned in to pledge their support and promised to vote.

By the end of Election Day, 4 million Mexican children cast their ballots and registered their opinions about family life, school, their communities and their country.

“It is important to listen to children because we are also citizens,” the young activist explains. “After all, we are the ones who will rule the world and the country in the future.”

The children’s Consulta was established by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). The project has also drawn the support of some 500 non-governmental organizations, the private sector and UNICEF.

IFE set up 300 children’s polling stations close to the voting booths for adults. Each station contained separate ballot boxes for three age groups: 6–9, 10–13 and 14–17.

Instead of voting for a candidate, the children filled in a questionnaire (of increasing complexity for each age group) requiring a “yes” or “no” answer to such questions as:
“In your home, do you feel safe?” or “In your school, do adults listen to you?”

The colourful ballot sheets were then folded and slipped into a special ballot box by each child or teenager. In a country where almost one third of the population is under 18 years old, this exercise in democracy had particular relevance.

The results of the Consulta are now being carefully studied by academics and lawmakers. Through the power of their ballots, the children of Mexico made a clear statement against violence and called for more respect.

“Promoting the Consulta hasn’t changed my life but being an advocate for children’s rights has,” says Sandra Jimenez Loza. “There are many countries where children suffer much more than in Mexico and that is why I’m very interested in getting to know other activists.”

So far, the young Mexican hasn’t done too badly. She’s met South African anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu, former Polish president Lech Walesa and British film star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Roger Moore.

“I’m inspired by human rights fighters,” she says. “The best job for me as a children’s rights activist would be Secretary-General of the United Nations. Then I know I would be listened to.”

For now, Jimenez Loza sees the Consulta as the first step toward ensuring a world in which children’s rights are fully respected.

“We have to take advantage of these small steps,” she says, “because they come together in a bigger way, opening up spaces in which we can participate — not only in this country but around the world.”

Prepared by UNICEF on behalf of the Global Movement for Children, January 2001.
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© UNICEF
Sandra Jimenez Loza, 13, urging Mexican children to vote in the Consulta Infantil y Juvenil 2000, a nationwide referendum on issues affecting young Mexicans aged nine to 17.
Click to view video clip (Real format, 2100 KB)
 
Voting results

Highlights from the children’s vote were as follows:

• 38 per cent of children in urban areas said they fear physical and verbal abuse.

• 33 per cent of children in rural areas and 26 per cent in urban areas said that in cases of disagreements, adults resort to insults and beating.

• More than three quarters of all children said they receive enough information about AIDS at school. But only 64 per cent in rural areas and 52 per cent in urban areas said they receive adequate information about AIDS in their home.

• Nine out of 10 children said they feel loved and happy at school, but one in three girls in rural areas said they are abused at school.

• 70 per cent said their opinions are not taken into account by decision makers.

• 63 per cent said there is inequality between the sexes in Mexico.