The State of the World's Children 2003
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Ivan Blacev/Right to Know Initiative/United Nations/2002


As part of their development efforts, UN Member States pledged to meet eight goals (the Millennium Development Goals) by the year 2015, six of which are directly related to children. These eight goals are closely linked to the major commitments made at the UN Special Session on Children in 2002 that all governments would work to promote and protect the rights of every child.

What is increasingly evident is that if children’s rights and well-being are not addressed by governments, national agencies and their various international partners, development goals will never be met.

The voices, insights, experiences, capacities and energy of children and young people are untapped resources for meeting the promises and goals embodied in the Millennium Declaration and ‘A World Fit for Children’. This does not mean the adults, governments and civil society of the world can abandon their responsibilities or pass the burden on to children. But it does mean a new partnership between adults and children and young people, seeking their opinions and taking them into account — in the family, in the community, in the school, in our organizations and in society.



Each generation is faced with new challenges — listening for and to the views of children is on of ours.

The State of the World’s Children 2003 is about child participation. It focuses on the responsibility of adults

Child participation entails the act of encouraging and enabling children to make their views known on the issues that affect them. Put into practice, participation involves adults listening to children — to all their multiple and varied ways of communicating, ensuring their freedom to express themselves and taking their views into account when coming to decisions that affect them.

The principle that children should be consulted about what affects them often meets with resistance from those who see it as undermining adult authority within the family and society. But listening to the opinions of children does not mean simply endorsing their views. Rather, engaging them in dialogue and exchange allows them to learn constructive ways of influencing the world around them. The social give and take of participation encourages children to assume increasing responsibilities as active, tolerant and democratic citizens in formation.

Authentic child participation

Child participation can take various forms of involvement, engagement and commitment, and not all child participation is active, social, purposeful, meaningful or constructive. Authentic child participation starts with children and young people themselves, on their own terms, within their own realities and in pursuit of their own visions, dreams, hopes and concerns. Children need information, support and favourable conditions in order to participate appropriately and in a way that enhances their dignity and self-esteem.

Most of all, authentic and meaningful child participation requires a radical shift in adult thinking and behaviour — from an exclusionary to an inclusionary approach to children and their capabilities — from a world defined solely by adults to one in which children contribute to building the kind of world they want to live in.

(See pages 9-14 in the print report)

Arguments for child participation are many and varied, and among them are the following.

1. Promoting meaningful and quality participation of children and adolescents is essential to ensuring their growth and development. A child whose active engagement with the world has been encouraged from the outset will be a child with the competencies to develop through early childhood, respond to educational opportunities and move into adolescence with confidence, assertiveness and the capacities to contribute to democratic dialogue and practices within the home, school, community and country.

2. Children have proved that when they are involved, they can make a difference in the world around them. They have ideas, experience and insights that enrich adult understanding and make a positive contribution to adult actions.

3. The United Nations General Assembly pledged to build “a world fit for children,” and at the close of the Special Session on Children in May 2002, world leaders declared their commitment to change the world not only for children, but with their participation.

4. Building democracy is an issue of great importance to international peace and development. The values of democracy — such as respect for the rights and dignity of all people — for their diversity and their right to participate in the decisions that affect them, are first and best learned in childhood.

5. The drive to participate is innate in every human being, ready to be developed in every newborn baby, ready to be influenced in every one of the 2 billion children in the world today.

6. It is not if children participate, but how they participate, that is a critical issue now, when so many millions of children are hungry, diseased or exploited. It is the quality of their interactions and the interactions of all children with their social environment that is ours to improve now

(See pages 19-22 in the print report)

Participation not only looks different at different phases of childhood but is different. Encouraging child participation entails listening not just to the oldest, brightest and most articulate children, but to children of all ages and capacities. Children participate in life from the first and their competency to express their needs and frustrations, their dreams and aspirations, changes with age, growing more complex throughout childhood and into adulthood. Although the participation of the very youngest child differs dramatically from that of the young adult, there is a continuum of evolving capacities that can be traced from an infant’s first movements to an adolescent’s political actions.

The best possible start

The effectiveness of children’s participation in life and society in later years depends upon the participation encouraged at the start. If parents and caregivers follow an infant’s lead in the first year of life, the mutual exchange contributes to the child’s healthy attachment.

In contrast, when the process of developing healthy attachments is disrupted by abuse, neglect or by repeated changes in caregivers, the results can include, among other things, a child’s lack of trust of adults in authority, an inability to give and receive affection and a failure to develop empathy, a conscience or compassion for others. Such predictable negative results are behind the great concerns about the growing numbers of young children being orphaned by AIDS, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Increasing a child’s opportunities to participate

The responsibility to ensure children the best possible start in life by expanding and enhancing the ways they participate is shared by families, local governments, civil society and the private sector. National governments must provide the policy and institutional frameworks — and the leadership — that support local initiatives.

One example of such an initiative is the Parent Effectiveness Services programme in the Philippines, where families are taught how to listen to and understand what their child is trying to communicate. Parents learn, among other things, the importance of reading stories to their children or of watching an educational television programme with them. The programme has improved children’s nutrition and reduced both child abuse and excessive punishment by parents.

(See pages 27-30 in the print report)

Schools are among the places where children learn key skills and gain knowledge about the world, and where they are ‘socialized’, made aware of society’s future expectations of them as citizens. Often this has involved the enforcing of blind obedience and deference. But increasingly, schools are places for socialization of a different kind, where children are enabled to think critically, where they learn about their rights and responsibilities and where they actively prepare for their role as citizens.

Girls’ education

Development organizations of every size have long agreed about the cost-effectiveness of investing in girls’ education and about the urgent necessity of doing so, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where there are more than 50 million primary-school-age girls out of school.

In the province of Baluchistan, Pakistan, for example, where the female literacy rate is 2 per cent, the local UNICEF office broke new ground in the promotion of primary education for girls with the help of the highly motivated boy scout movement. Never before in the region had boys participated in promoting the rights of girls. The scouts went door-to-door surveying girls’ school attendance and, where necessary, trying to convince fathers to enrol their daughters. Where villages had no existing girls’ primary school, the scouts would convince the boys’ school to admit girls; where the long walk to school presented dangers, the scouts would offer to escort the girls. The first year’s results were encouraging: each targeted school enrolled 10 to 15 new girls, amounting to around 2,500 overall.


UNICEF continues to campaign for classroom methods that maximize children’s participation, which encourage active learning rather than the passive reception of facts and received wisdom. Experience indicates a child-centred learning experience, grounded in the life and environment of the community, will also be one that encourages girls’ enrolment and continuation in school.

The Escuela Nueva schools in Latin American countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, Guyana and Honduras, for example, are based on multi-age groups in which children’s rights and democratic involvement are paramount. A recent study of 25 schools in two of the more violent areas in Colombia supports the argument that cooperation, coexistence and peaceful solution of conflict can be taught. The study found that the 15 schools using the escuela nueva methodology had a direct and significant impact on the participation and democratic behaviour of its graduates within the community, and on the voting patterns of parents. The framework of the Escuela Nueva model is evolving continuously, the study concluded, due to the creativity of teachers, student governments, parents and communities that understand the potential of change.


The value of sports for a child’s physical and mental development has long been acknowledged. Now, there is a growing belief that sports have the potential to contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan has appointed a task force on Sports for Development, Health and Peace, charged to develop recommendations for using sports as a tool for development.

(See pages 35-38 in the print report)

Adolescents are the world’s most immediate heirs: the next age group to gain access to the advantages and opportunities of adulthood. Yet, in every society adolescents are the most likely age group to find themselves marginalized, abused, exploited and disregarded, and in perilous limbo, neither young enough to inspire adult protectiveness nor old enough to grasp the power and possibilities of adult society. Almost all countries have populations of adolescents scraping out a living on the streets of their urban centres. The latest estimates put the numbers of these children as high as 100 million.

Effecting social change

In Brazil, the boys and girls who live on the city streets have found in the MNMMR (National Movement of Street Boys and Girls) a space for participation that has permitted them to become aware of their rights, reorganize their perspective on life and fight for their rights. In 1985, educators from all over the country who were already working with street children founded the Movement after a national meeting attended by delegations of adolescents representing local groups. The Movement has had a significant impact on the national legislation reform and played a leading role in denouncing extermination groups. By participating in the Movement, boys and girls who have spent time on the streets learn how to return to family and community life, attend school and take advantage of a space of their own where they can fight for their rights.

(See pages 43-49 in the print report)

The journey from where we are today to a world where children’s opinions are routinely sought is a process that requires new skills by all those involved — children and adults, families, communities, cities and organizations. As children grow and develop, their opportunities for participation expand from private to public spaces, from local to global influence.


The family, the first place where children learn to participate, is the ideal forum where children can learn to express their views while respecting the perspectives of others. As the Committee on the Rights of the Child advised in one of its early sessions: “Traditionally, the child has been seen as a dependent, invisible and passive family member. Only recently has he or she become ‘seen’ and…the movement is growing to give him or her space to be heard and respected…. The family becomes in turn the ideal framework for the first stage of the democratic experience for each and all of its individual members, including children.”

Recognizing the critical and vital role of families, many organizations have developed programmes and advocacy campaigns for parents and families that support their efforts to encourage children’s participation. UNICEF’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean has, for example, developed a set of policy guidelines that call for public policies to strengthen families in a range of ways including: economically and materially; by encouraging parental responsibility and providing programmes that support parents’ efforts; and through application of laws and programmes that counter domestic violence and child abuse.

(See pages 53-57 in the print report)

Optimizing children’s participation involves a redrawing of the adult world. It means children being encouraged to develop and refine their competencies and put democratic values into practice. It depends on adults sharing control, power, decision-making and information. If children are to have a voice, they need access to information that is both timely and understandable to their particular intellectual stage of development. Access to information is a matter of survival in many situations, most urgently today in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Misconceptions and ignorance about the disease are widespread among young people. Surveys from 40 countries indicated that more than 50 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 harbour serious misconceptions about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted.

Children and young people are virtually invisible in terms of public policy and of voices expressed on the national stage. Even in the healthiest democratic societies run in the service of voters’ interests, children tend to be marginalized — on the assumption that their parents will speak for them. One solution is the number of children’s parliaments, which is mushrooming, representing a positive response to the need to both listen to young voices and to foster democratic citizenship.

(See pages 61-64 in the print report)

The idea of meaningful child participation at the international level was put into practice at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children. Never before had this many children participated in such a high-level meeting, and the results were remarkable. From intergenerational dialogues to the Security Council, children were everywhere, making their voices heard and being taken seriously.

The Global Movement for Children

In the run-up to the Special Session, the Global Movement for Children brought together adults, adolescents and children; campaigners, counsellors and crusaders for child rights: those who cared about forging a world fit for children. While recognizing that children and adolescents cannot be expected to challenge the world’s misplaced priorities on their own, this energetic alliance embraced the idea that the job could not be done by adults without the passion and perspectives of children.

The Children’s Forum

More than 400 children, representing over 150 countries, travelled to New York City in May 2002 to attend the Special Session. Most were in their teens, though some were as young as age 10. At the Children’s Forum, which lasted for three days, children were divided into groups to discuss eight key issues, which they had identified as exploitation and abuse, environment, protection from war, children’s participation, health, HIV/AIDS, poverty and education. At the closing ceremony, pledges from the ‘Say Yes for Children’ campaign, totalling nearly 95 million, were presented to Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. The children’s statement, ‘A World Fit for Us’, was read out to the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Children by 13-year-old Gabriela Azurduy Arrieta from Bolivia and 17-year-old Audrey Cheynut from Monaco.


At the close of the UN Special Session on Children, all countries adopting ‘A World Fit for Children’ Declaration and Plan of Action reaffirmed their commitment to promote and protect the rights of children. Through national actions and international cooperation, governments committed themselves to promoting healthy lives, providing quality education, protecting children against abuse, exploitation and violence, and combating HIV/AIDS. They pledged to achieve these goals, to change the world, not only for but most importantly with children.

One of the broadest, most profound lessons to learn is that children are capable of much more than is normally thought. Children will rise to meet the challenges in front of them.

But for the millions of children caught up in armed conflict or condemned to a half-life of sexual slavery or hazardous labour, the challenges are far greater than any child should have to bear. The world must protect its children far better than it does at present, even as it opens the door to their participation.

And open the door it must. Not only because the children who walk through it will be better able to protect themselves, but also because we cannot design a world fit for children without carefully listening to what they have to say.

Democracy is neither easy nor guaranteed. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminds us, “One of the greatest challenges to humankind in the new century will be the struggle to make the practice of democracy truly universal.”

If we are to meet the goals of ‘A World Fit for Children’ and attain the Millennium Development Goals, if we are to change this divided, damaged, conflict-ridden world by advancing the practice of democracy, if we are to make the world truly fit for all people — we will only do so with the full participation of children and young people.