|UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman greets the panellists at the child participation event.|
By Amy Bennett
NEW YORK, USA, 16 October 2009 – Six young people stood before an overflowing room of people at UNICEF House to present their views on child participation. Getting adults to listen is their biggest challenge, they said, but these well-spoken activists both inspired and educated their audience – and left everyone thinking about new ways to involve children in matters that affect them.
“We are here representing ourselves and our own opinions,” said Marita Haug, 18, from Plan Norway’s Children’s Advisory Board. “Child participation is when children are given the opportunity to participate in their communities and express their rights.”
Along with explaining to the audience what child participation means and giving examples from their personal experiences, they also reassured adults that they do not want to make the decisions themselves, but to have those decisions made with their opinions and interests in mind.
“We are not trying to threaten your power as adults,” said Allegra Marra, 17, a member of the Youth United for Global Action and Awareness (YUGA) in Rhode Island. “Or, do whatever we want, such as play video games all night. We are trying to participate in issues that affect us, not only in our futures, but now.”
|Ishmael Beah, UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War, moderates a discussion on child participation at UNICEF House in New York.|
“Most of us are familiar with saying that we children are the future, but I think today it is also important to send home that we children are also the present,” said Wutor Mahama Baleng, 17, a member of the Rights of Children’s club sponsored by Plan International. “We are part of the world that we are all living in.”
Exploring child participation
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman opened the event, which was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions to the UN of Sweden, Uruguay, the Czech Republic and Belize, in collaboration with a joint effort by Plan International, Save the Children, War Child Holland and UNICEF. The aim was to advance the understanding of children’s participation and support further dialog related to one of the key principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War, Ishmael Beah moderated the talk. A former child soldier who later wrote a memoir about his experience, Beah can relate to the importance of decision-makers taking into account the experiences and opinions of young people.
“Our participation and the participation of youth and children in all things that affect them is absolutely important,” he said. “If we don’t listen to them we will not know how to help them effectively.”
|Fatimata Bolly addresses a gathering of adult decision-makers at UNICEF on the issue of child participation.|
‘We have important things to say’
Child participation is intended to give decision-makers the opportunity to let children help them in important decisions that affect them. It is also a way for children to learn and to grow into the societies they are a part of.
“Do not underestimate us because we are young,” said Dayanara Veliz, an American of Honduran descent who is a member of the Junior Statesmen of America. She explained that she was incredibly shy two years ago but that participation in issues that are important to her had changed all that. “I’ve realized that we do have important things to say. Sometimes adults say they know better, but we have to be able to contribute our ideas, our feelings, our views to them as well.”
“Please give us the opportunity to be involved in government by making it more accessible for young people,” said Arisa Lohmeier, 16, also with YUGA in Rhode Island.
A commitment for the future
An ongoing dialogue means a real commitment to the inclusion of children. That commitment must continue well beyond the celebration of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is 20 years old this year. Participation will be an important component to ensuring child rights are protected and communicated to both adults and children.
“We need to have more of this type of dialogue between children and adults, between children and decision-makers,” said UNICEF Chief of Adolescent Development and Participation Victor Karunan. “People today are going back with a good example of how they can have a face to face dialogue with children as equal partners.”
“I want my peers back at home and the whole world as a whole to know that they have the right to be listened to; they have the right to participate in issues that concern them,” said 17-year-old Wutor.