Parliament of children and adolescents
By Maite Garmendia
The wish to give Guatemalan children and youth a voice
Yolanda Cupil is a 15-year old quiché young woman. Her youth contrasts with her easy under-standing of concepts sometimes too difficult to describe, such as democracy, civil participation, tolerance or children’s rights. Her clear-cut explanation is absolutely amazing. “We want to create a just and participatory world that takes into account all children and youth” is among the phrases that reveal she certainly knows what she is talking about.
This process of learning and internalisation of certain terms began some five years ago, achieving its highest level in November 2004, as Yolanda –jointly with 109 boys, girls and youths– formed the first Parliament of Children and Adolescents in Guatemala.
How did it all start?
Sitting on a wooden chair at her home in community Llanos del Pino in Quetzaltenango, Yolanda tells her story: “In 2000, I took a dressmaking course in Association for Research, Development and Integrated Education (IDEI). While learning about the subject, all participants attended talks on children’s rights that, as we all know, are not enforced in Guatemala.”
Yolanda enjoyed the experience and, as a corollary, participated in various departmental activities in Quetzaltenango oriented to disseminate this reality. “Some of us were really interested in the issue and in July 2002 decided to form a group that we named ‘Light and Life’”. Why the name? “Because we want to come out in the light, protect our rights, come out of the darkness and live fully”, indicates Yolanda.
From its onset, ‘Light and Life’, with support from Association IDEI, “started the search and unifi-cation of different efforts from other groups with the sole purpose of giving children a voice and allowing them to participate in their own development”, points out José Yac from Association IDEI.
The idea of creating a Parliament of Children and Adolescents gradually took shape, and the convergence of children and youth groups at regional level –around Quetzaltenango– became a coalition of national efforts in 2003. “We organised important activities and several summits. We created the “Guide for participation in decision-making”. We met with presidential candidates to achieve their commitment to support children and youth and also organised walks to demand our rights, placed billboards...”.
The road towards the creation of the Parliament of Children and Adolescents was paved and, according to Yolanda’s explanation, the process of election was based on the maize crop: “First, one must select the best corn cobs, then prepare the soil, and finally take the necessary steps to produce a good crop.”
This dynamics derived in the search for leaders in each community with support from teachers, midwives and Mayan priests, among others. The next step was to define the candidates at municipal level, and later at departmental level. Then - with support from institutions like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) - 7 regional encounters were organised –in Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Retalhuleu, Guatemala City, Chiquimula, Alta Verapaz and Izabal–, from which emerged 110 boys, girls and youths who formed the Parliament in November 2003.
Yolanda did well in all these phases. “Each leader had to make a presentation of a problem that needed solution, such as child mistreatment, sexual abuse, poverty.... I chose racial discrimination because we are always discriminated on account of our skin colour, our clothing or our language”, indicates Yolanda.
After their election, members of Parliament – constituted with 60% Maya-, 33% ladino- and 7% garifuna- and xinca children – reinforced their knowledge, also with UNICEF support. All 110 young congressmen were trained in Human Rights, children’s rights, the Law of Integrated Pro-tection of Children and Adolescents and, naturally, parliamentary techniques in order to learn about and internalise the political game.
Today, they are faced with new challenges. “This initiative should be strengthened and, therefore, our aim is for “true” Congress to institutionalise the Parliament of Children and Adolescents so that it may become a permanent advisory entity to which the youngest may contribute”, indicates Yolanda.
She knows the process will be difficult but is also conscious that the objectives will be achieved in time. “We may stumble many times on our way but we can also decide to move forward in order to reach the reality that we want. We have unique opportunities and should not let them go because they will never come back.”