All around the world, children are speaking up on legislative matters that affect them – and in many nations, governments are learning to listen.
In Afghanistan, a children’s Jirga (assembly) is planned to address the difficulties faced by the millions of children in Afghanistan: those who have lost one or both parents, been displaced by conflict or maimed by landmines, or who suffer from malnutrition or die before the age of five. The Afghan Government has been asked to set up a national commission for children that will involve several departments, such as health and education, “so that,” explains Olara Otunnu, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, “children become central in creating policies and in allocation of resources.”
In Timor-Leste (East Timor), nine days before independence was celebrated on 20 May 2002, a Student Parliament was convened, holding its inaugural meeting at the parliamentary assembly. As the new nation moved toward independence, UNICEF and its partners had launched a vigorous campaign to educate young people about democracy. Under the banner ‘Build a nation with children and young people’, UNICEF encouraged young people to become involved in the political process. Out of this campaign, the Student Parliament was born.
The students debated a range of topics – from health care to education to HIV/AIDS – and adopted 22 resolutions. They called for the new Government to ratify human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to improve health and education in rural areas.
The Student Parliament was the first parliament in what was then East Timor, at the time governed by a Constituent Assembly, a body that advised Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Transitional Administrator. Xanana Gusmao, the President-elect, and the Council of Ministers took over from Mr. de Mello nine days after the Student Parliament. The report from the Student Parliament will be presented to the full Parliament during the 2002 parliamentary season, and UNICEF is coordinating with the Ministry of Education to establish student parliaments in selected high schools during the school year.
“Children are important for East Timor,” said Germano da Costa, the Student Parliament President. “This is a young country, we are a young people. It is good that people can build their houses, grow their food, but we need to build the skills of our children. They are our guarantee for the future.”
In another part of the world, the South African Law Commission (SALC) is involved in a comprehensive review of all legislation relating to children. The review began in the 1990s as a result of generalized dissatisfaction with child-care legislation that pre-dated the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994.
After some urgent amendments were passed in 1996 and 1999, a complete overhaul of the existing law is now under way. Children throughout the country have attended workshops and discussion groups, and their comments were taken into account when the Commission formulated preliminary recommendations in 2001. A draft Children’s Bill has since been finalized, and it is now with the Department of Social Development. If approved, the draft Bill will be introduced in Parliament.
SALC consulted with children on impending changes to legislation that affected them directly, and it accorded children an equal footing to participate with adults in the law reform process. Their input received the same consideration as that of other stakeholders and their opinion was in some instances decisive. One such instance was the decision not to extend the prohibition on the employment of children under 16 years of age to all children under 18.
From an independent evaluation of the child participation process, it is clear that children valued the opportunity to participate in a law reform process and to have their voices heard. In the words of one child, “We had a say, feeling needed, important. We were also happy that we were given a chance to be involved, to give our ideas and be listened to and hope they will get something useful out of what we said.”