What the survey asked

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The right to express a view freely is not a right that all children exercise easily and while the poll provides a "snap-shot" of children's views, the poll alone cannot ensure that these are given due weight by decision makers. The value of this exercise is to provide starting points on children's feelings and perceptions, on how they experience the adult-created world they inhabit.

All the States surveyed have taken on obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to ensure that all the rights within it are respected for all children in their jurisdiction "without discrimination of any kind".

The poll's findings indicate that the rights of many millions of children are being violated across Europe and Central Asia:

  • 6 out of 10 children report that they face violent or aggressive behaviour in their families;
  • One in six children feel unsafe to walk around their neighbourhoods;
  • A third know friends or acquaintances who are addicted to at least one harmful or illegal substance;
  • 4 out of 10 children feel their opinions are ignored by their local government;
  • A majority of children appear ill-equipped with basic information to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS;
  • Nearly half have little or no information about their rights.

No State can be complacent about the treatment of children or assure itself that the problems belong to other countries. There are regional and sub-regional differences, but on the poll's results no country or region can claim to be doing well.

Love, choice and respect
The right to be heard
The happiness of children
The right to education
The right to protection from all forms of violence

Love, choice and respect

The poll asked children to identify rights they are aware of and they proposed two that do not precisely exist under any known international treaties or domestic legislation. One was the "right to be loved", the other was the "right to choice and respect."

More than one in five of the children polled in all regions identified "children's right to be loved," and 1 in 10 of the children who proposed this right also thought it was not respected in their country. More than one in five children also identified "the right to choice and respect," which touches on both their desire to have a say in decisions which affect them and their desire for self-determination or to actually make decisions that affect them.

Around 40 per cent of children in this poll, evenly spread across regions, say either that their opinion is "sometimes considered, sometimes not" (31%) or that it is not considered (9%) in their families. Older children, and children in smaller families, report more consideration of their opinions.

Those polled identified specific issues that affect their immediate life that they would like more of a say in, such leisure or spare time (19%); school (11%); clothing, fashion and appearance and general consumer purchases (9% each).

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The right to be heard

The poll also asked children about the sensitivity of local government to their views. Only 15 per cent of the children felt that their opinions are taken into account when decisions are made concerning them; almost four out of 10 say their opinions are not considered at all and a quarter said they did not know.

When asked to nominate issues they would particularly like to be consulted on, almost a third of children (30% overall) cited choices of leisure activities. Next most frequently mentioned were school (16%), environment (8%) and the improvement of living conditions (6%).

The children were also asked what they would tell their teachers about their school if they could really say what they thought. One in five said they would ask for better teacher-student relations, 1 in 10 would ask for improvements to the school's organization and 1 in 14 would ask teachers not to be so strict.

This poll shows a very low trust in central government and political leaders -- just under a third l trust their government, and a third distrust it. Slightly more trust the President/Head of State (32% in Western Europe rising to 40% in the CEE/CIS and the Baltic States, with some sharp differences between sub-regions).

Asked to spontaneously identify famous people they admire, just 2 out of every 100 children identified a politician or political leader. Within the 9-17 year olds, trust of politicians, police and teachers diminishes with age and - presumably - experience.

Much other research evidence has suggested that the younger generation is disenchanted with traditional politics and politicians, leading to low participation in elections or referenda. The current views of those polled suggest the trend is likely to continue:

  • Only more than 4 out of 10 see voting in elections as an effective way to improve things in their country (higher in Western Europe (50%) than in CEE/CIS and the Baltic States (39%).
  • One in five of the minority of children overall who believe their country will be worse off in the future identify as a reason: "Government will be unable to solve problems".

These findings do not mean a lack of interest in social issues or lack of commitment to improving things generally. These children are highly concerned about a range of economic, social and environmental issues, identifying discrimination against disabled children, poor children and children of different religions and ethnic groups, and most can identify actions they want from government and have views on the design of better societies.

The very existence of this poll and the 15 per cent of children it found who believe that government at a local level is taking their opinions into account, is a remarkable testimony to the impact of the Convention in its first decade. Prior to the Convention there was no significant pressure on governments to take any notice of children who did not vote.

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The happiness of children

While it is important to focus on the warning signs emerging from the poll, it is good to note that two-thirds of all children polled feel happy "most of the time," and most:

  • report good family relationships,
  • believe it is important to help others,
  • feel safe in their neighbourhoods,
  • get on well with their teachers,
  • are not exposed to drugs, crime or discrimination, and
  • think life will get better in the future.

While the adult world can take some credit, tribute must also be paid to the resilience and optimism of children themselves. Objective data about the living conditions in many countries suggest that if adults were polled on the same subjects we would not find such high levels of contentment. There are four key areas which relate to children's unhappiness, namely poverty, poor family relationships, gender and living in a rural environment.

Poverty and happiness

The relationship between poverty and children's lack of contentment and well-being is a thread running throughout this poll. The sharply higher levels of poverty accompanying the transition to market economies and the increasing gaps between rich and poor in most countries, East and West, define the context.

The findings show that:

  • More children are happy in Western Europe (8 out of 10) than in the CEE/CIS and the Baltic States (6 in 10).
  • Children's happiness declines according to their socio-economic group, with those in the higher groups feeling generally happier than those in the lower.
  • More children in lower socio-economic groups think life is worse than 10 years ago
  • More in CEE/CIS and the Baltic States than in Western Europe think life has become worse over the past decade.

The knock-on effect of poverty on the rest of children's lives is depressingly underlined by many of the poll's findings. Children from lower socio-economic groups tend to:

  • Report poorer relationships with their parents,
  • Experience more violence
  • Feel their parents are less able to talk to them
  • Are less well informed about their rights
  • Are more cynical about the effectiveness of voting

Given that most of the children polled would not be old enough to rely on their own judgement of life 10 years ago (some would not even have been born), these views relate either to a generally gloomy outlook, or are views expressed by the adults in their lives. Either way, the view seems to relate to economic conditions.

Nearly twice as many Western European children do not expect their countries to change significantly over the next decade as children from the CEE/CIS and the Baltic States, who are realistic about the current difficulties of transition but at the same time considerably more hopeful than their Western peers about change, particularly in terms of the countries' economic situation.

Although the majority of children want to live in their own country as adults, a much higher proportion want to live elsewhere (preferably a rich country) if they come from outside Western Europe. The connection with unhappiness is here too: children who say they feel unhappy are also twice as likely to want to live somewhere else in adulthood.

Poor family relationships

We know from child development studies that young children's initial dependence on their parents gradually widens to include friends and peer group, and so it is no surprise to discover that the primary cause of happiness of children (9 to 13) comes from being with their family, while being with friends is the first thing identified by young people (14 to 17), with family life a close runner-up. Relationships within their family was identified as the major source of unhappiness for children -- being scolded, punished and confronted with family conflict top the children's reasons for being unhappy.

Communication is key to good family relationships and most children who report poor, average or non-existent relationships with their parents mention a lack of communication or understanding, of parents not listening to what children say. A quarter of those reporting unhappiness at home say that their opinions are not taken into account at all by their parents. Unhappy children also are much more likely to opt for silence when they have been falsely accused of doing something wrong, rather than feeling able to explain the mistake and expecting to be understood.

The poll suggests that more children who are in one-parent families are unhappy than those in families with two parents, and also points to other potential risk factors for this group of children. For example, children from one-parent families are more likely to have friends or acquaintances who use drugs.

Gender and happiness

One of the poll's consistent findings is that boys report more problems in their personal relationhips than girls do: Boys report that they

  • Have less warm relationships with their friends
  • Are less supportive of others
  • Are less informed about their rights
  • Find it less easy to talk about their problems in school
  • Are more likely to know friends using harmful substances,
  • Are more likely to think that hitting is a good solution to problems
  • Are less likely to mention behaving well in school or helping others as learned values.

In fact the only positive thing the poll shows boys doing more than girls is having a greater involvement in sport, so it is hardly surprising to discover that boys generally feel less happy than girls.

The poll shows that children have stronger relationships with their mothers than with their fathers, and that the absence of fathers in family life, either permanently or because of their work commitments, may be one cause. If men are slowly losing their superior status in society, it follows that boys may also be losing their role models and their sense of purpose and place.

The happiness of rural children

The unexpected finding that children from rural backgrounds generally feel more unhappy than children living in urban settings is not supported by other poll data. On the contrary, the poll shows that rural children:

  • Are more optimistic about their country's future prospects
  • Are less inclined to want to live elsewhere when they are grown up
  • Have greater confidence in the point of voting
  • Feel safer in their neighbourhoods
  • Are less likely to be in contact with friends who are using drugs or other harmful substances.

These results support the perception that country life is safer, more peaceful and more conservative than urban communities, which may be why rural children feel less contented than their urban peers. Rural children generally feel more unhappy than urban children, and their comparative unhappiness deserves further study.

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The right to education

When the children polled were asked what they knew about "children's rights", more than half said they had a lot (12%), or some (42%), information about this topic, while the others claimed to know little or nothing about their rights. But when invited to identify a child's right, more than 60 per cent spontaneously mentioned "the right to education/school." Only one per cent suggested children had a right "to work" or "to have a job."

School appears to be a happy experience for most and performing well in school is identified as one of the four main sources of their happiness -- particularly for the younger age group - and almost 7 in 10 report having good relations with their teachers. Between 20 and 25 per cent say they attend school "because I have to," this is rarely the main reason and as many say "because I like it." The most common reason given is "to learn."

Children have a right to practical information about sexual relationships, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse prevention. Almost half the children polled - less in the older group - said they had no real information about sexual relationships. Similar proportions hardly knew anything about HIV/AIDS or only knew its name, and had no real information about drug abuse prevention. Only 4 in 10 children said they find it easy to talk about their problems at school.

A striking feature of this poll is the difference between the attitudes of children of Western Europe and those from other regions towards school. Overall, school appears to be more central to the concerns of children from the CEE/CIS and the Baltic States:

  • Performing well in school was a source of happiness by significantly fewer children in Western Europe (33%) than in the transition countries (45%).
  • Not performing well at school was less likely to be a cause of unhappiness for children Western Europe.
  • Children from the transition countries are more concerned about schools than leisure in answer to the questions on what they want from government.
  • Children in the CEE/CIS and the Baltic States put more emphasis on what improvements are needed to the education system - free access, better equipment, more benefits for pupils, better schools.
  • When asked to identify problems they talk to friends about, fewer children in Western Europe mentioned school.
  • More children in the transition countries have good or very good relations with their teachers.

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The right to protection from all forms of violence

The poll gives an indication of that the countries are far from fulfilling the fundamental obligation to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence - in particular in relation to their lives within families. It also underlines how very strongly children want a non-violent and peaceful world.

When asked about their awareness of particular rights, more than a third of children spontaneously identified the right not to be hurt or mistreated and more than a third of those respondents felt it was not respected in their country. This is a reflection of the high rates of violence and aggression faced by very many children in their families. In addition, the impact of armed conflicts - which have taken place in one third of the transition countries over the past decade - on children's security and happiness levels of should not be discounted.

The proportion of children reporting violent or aggressive behaviour at home varies from 5 to 7 out of every 10 children. In Latin America and the Caribbean and East Asia and the Pacific, a quarter of the children surveyed reported facing violence or aggressive behaviour in their homes.

The level of violence perceived is cause for serious concern even when taking into consideration different cultural thresholds regarding violence:

  • 16-21 per cent report that violence involves hitting
  • More than one in ten say aggressive behaviour at home happens "very/quite often".
  • Older children report more violence, probably because they feel able to report it or recognize that it is not the norm, rather than because they encounter it more. When scolded unfairly, a third of all children say they keep quiet, or "explain, but they don't listen."
  • Almost 6 out of 10 children report that parents scold, insult or beat them when they do something "wrong".
  • Forty four percent say that parents understand, talk and give them advice.

More than 80 per cent promote talking as always or often a good solution to problems, an equally strong proportion reject shouting as "never" (58%) or "rarely" (24%) a good solution and more than three quarters state that hitting is "never" a good solution.

This poll does not provide any detailed measure of the extent and type of direct violence and violence between other family members experienced by these children, although children do report that a high proportion of it happens as a result of their bad behaviour.

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The Convention affirms children's status as holders of human rights and reflects a world wide cultural shift towards recognising children as individual human beings, rather than possessions, or products, or people-in-the-making. This extensive, unique poll is both a contribution to that process and a rough measure of how far States still have to go.

This information is provided as a contribution to discussion on important issues affecting children. UNICEF Regional offices conducted the polls, analysis and interpretations of the findings. For more information, please contact the regional poll contact person directly.

About the survey
How happy children are
How children feel at home
How children feel at school
How children feel in today's society
How safe children feel
Children and harmful or illegal substances
How informed children are
Children's views on government and politics
How children see the future