Asking children and young people what they think can make for some uncomfortable moments. What if we don’t like what they have to say? From that perspective, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan showed courageous leadership when he invited children to express their views at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in May 2002. “So far, adults have called the shots, but now it’s time to build the world with children. Your voices will be heard, I promise,” the Secretary-General said.
And the children spoke, in voices loud and clear. As they presented the results of the ‘Say Yes for Children’ campaign – nearly 95 million pledges – they told world leaders that 95 million people were expecting their leadership on behalf of children and 95 million people were ready to help them in their efforts to ensure the rights of every child.
They demanded a world free of poverty, war and violence in their statement to the General Assembly. They offered their knowledge and ingenuity to help find solutions to the problems that affect them. “We have the will, the knowledge, the sensitivity and the dedication,” the children argued.
Throughout the Special Session, they were everywhere – or so it seemed. Children and young people chaired meetings, engaged world leaders in intense discussions at inter-generational dialogue sessions and talked to the media to explain their points of view and expectations. They raised issues, analysed situations and offered solutions with clear vision.
In the year leading up to the Special Session, in one of the largest multi-country surveys of children ever carried out, nearly 40,000 children between the ages of 9 and 18 in 72 countries across East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean shared their opinions on such topics as school, violence in their lives and their expectations of government. In the surveys, conducted by UNICEF and its partners, the majority of children report good relationships with parents and teachers, feel happy most of the time and are deeply concerned about a range of economic, social and environmental issues.
But far too many children and young people spoke about harsh realities:
Such findings speak for themselves about the state of our societies and our value systems. Unheard or unattended, they bode ill for the future of our democracies.
Two out of three children in Latin America and the Caribbean have little or no trust in their government and related institutions. The children feel that they are of no importance to these institutions.
In Europe and Central Asia, only 4 out of 10 children see voting in elections as an effective way to improve things in their country. Just under a third trust their government, while another third distrust it. Asked to spontaneously identify famous people they admire, only 2 out of every 100 children chose a politician or political leader.
In East Asia and the Pacific, only 3 per cent of the children surveyed named a president or prime minister as the person they admired most. (Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, was a major exception with 21 per cent.) In Latin America and the Caribbean, the picture is even more grim. Many of the children surveyed did not identify any leaders at all. A number of children believed that their country would be worse off in the future, partly because they view their government as unable to solve problems.
And among all children surveyed, trust of politicians and of police and teachers diminished with age and – presumably – experience.
Government officials from many countries acknowledged that the polls brought home the importance of listening to children’s voices and of taking their views into account when making decisions that affect their lives. Twenty-one Latin American Heads of State, for example, meeting at the Xth Iberoamerican Summit, vowed to look deeper into the situation of their children and youth. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the largest regional security organization in the world, asked its field missions to use the survey results to inform and guide their programmes aimed at strengthening democratic citizenship, civic education, conflict prevention and security.
Where regional polls were not conducted, leaders learned what the concerns of their children and youth are from country surveys, consultations and youth conferences. In Amman, for instance, adolescents from 16 countries who gathered at a regional youth forum proposed initiatives on some of their key issues, among them jobs and education, and the vast number of young smokers and of youth in conflict situations.
At this juncture, the turn is ours. We asked children what they thought and what they hoped for. They told us. “Now,” said Carol Bellamy at the close of the Special Session, “is time for action.”