What is children's participationChildren do not participate by merely attending a function. That is decoration and not participation.
In the most obvious sense, participation means taking part. In order to participate, children need to have a meaningful role - to do something they think is worthwhile, to play a role that shows people care for them and overall to have their rights to dignity, safety, protection and comfort respected.
According to the UN Convention on Child Rights, all children are equal, and have human rights such as the right to food, shelter, health care, education and freedom from violence, neglect and exploitation. The Convention also states that children have the right to participate in decision-making and due weight should be given to their opinions, according to their age and maturity.
This means that children and young people have the right to participate in family decisions, in school and class decisions, in faith communities, in their cultural and sporting organisations, and also in local and national government, and in the UN and other international bodies.
Children and young people often represent over 40 percent of the societies in which they live, yet they have traditionally been excluded from decision-making all over the world.
Children have the right to freedom of expression, to form and join associations and to seek and receive appropriate information. These rights should empower children to bring about changes in their own lives, to build a better future.
What participation is not
They do not participate by being merely consulted when adults make all the decisions (For example the children have no say concerning what questions they will be asked, how they will express their answers, and what will be done with the results.)
They do not participate if they are manipulated so that they express views that are not genuinely their own, nor rooted in their own experience.
It is merely tokenism if they are asked to give their opinion as representing "the children" when they are not properly briefed nor have the opportunity to discuss the issues with the very peers they are meant to be representing.
To be meaningful, participation must involve at least some degree of power- sharing and some involvement in at least some of the processes. Participation is not autonomy - children cannot always have what they want. Limits have to be set to children's power as adults have the responsibility to ensure that they are safe, healthy and educated. There may also be financial and practical limits which adults will need to apply. Adults cannot stand by and let children make irreversible mistakes that would cause serious harm or loss to themselves or others.
Asking children and young people what works, what doesn't and what could work better, and involving them on an ongoing basis, in the design, delivery and evaluation of services helps to develop new skills and promote links within communities.
They become more clear about and understand their own wants and needs, in the light of the values of the community and the rights of the child.
Why should children participate?
There are benefits to children and young people themselves, to adults and to society when children participate.
They explore the possibilities of their lives by being offered choices and having to prioritise them. Also by realising the constraints or limitations to their development or happiness children are able to come to terms with the inequities of life. And by being offered a way forward to overcome them and attain a happier life for themselves and others too.
They also learn to consider the needs of others and to gain social skills as they negotiate, debate and problem-solve together.
Their developmental needs are met, particularly the need for responsibility, respect and recognition, which increases their confidence and self-esteem.
Because they are part of the process by which decisions are reached, they feel more committed to make those decisions work.
Adults and society benefit
Children can help shape policy and practice. Insights gained from children and young people help adults to be more effective in meeting their changing needs. These needs are best defined by children from their everyday interests and problems, because what they actually experience may be different from what we had intended or expected.
Children can change our perception of ourselves as adults and help us to avoid assumptions about what we think "childhood" is. We will be more effective if we do not generalise, for example we should not say that "all children are helpless against violence" or "cannot reason until they turn seven".
Children who participate are more likely to go on to become capable and involved citizens as they grow up. They learn democratic procedures and responsibilities by participating.
UNICEF has a long-standing commitment to ethical and meaningful participation of children as a guiding principle of all it's work. UNICEF’s mandate to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child necessitates that all children under 18 are included in its programming. UNICEF is committed to building partnerships that promote meaningful participation of children and adolescents in programmes and decision-making processes that affect their lives.
As the world’s leading agency on children, UNICEF has organized and participated in various high level events involving meaningful child participation, including the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children Junior 8 Summit (July 2006, St. Petersburg), UN Youth Leadership Summit (November 2006, New York).
To learn more about child participation, visit Children’s Corner.
Compiled by Jyoti Rao
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