A voice, choice for every youth

Let us ask ourselves, whether children and young people have a real chance of being heard.

Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand
Young girl is standing and talking in auditorium
UNICEF Thailand/2017/Sukhum Preechapanich
16 November 2021

Youth activists took over the United Nations COP26 summit in Scotland to call out world leaders on "blah, blah, blah" over taking action, when nearly half the world's 2.2 billion children are living in countries at high risk from climate shocks.

And here in Thailand, youth leaders have been at the forefront of social movements for over a year, calling for political and education reform and an end to inequalities. They are asking to be heard and be part of the solution.

Now is the moment to ask ourselves as a society, whether children and young people have a real chance of being heard and influencing decisions that affect their lives, and what platforms and safe spaces are needed for their meaningful participation. Because when we ensure children's right to be heard and participate in our homes, schools and society, we support better decision-making and help shape active citizens for life.

Let us ask ourselves, which practices, attitudes and barriers are preventing children and young people from expressing themselves and being taken seriously? Do schools offer safe spaces to speak up, engage and learn? Are policymakers committed to not only listening to them but also reflecting their feedback in their policies and decisions?

Young voices must be heard, not marginalised. Peaceful protests are one of the few ways the younger generation can exercise their citizenship, given that many cannot vote yet. Our role is to ensure that they can do this as safely as possible. This means planning for child safety in crowd control and making sure that any charges against children meet international child justice standards and that due process is respected.

When children and young people feel safe to freely express their views online and offline and are equipped with the skills for constructive dialogue, they are empowered to find their voices and believe in their ability to make a difference in their communities. Their participation lies at the heart of building a child-friendly society that can develop sustainably and be governed with respect for human rights and liberties.

Let us also ask ourselves, in what ways are we underestimating the ideas and roles of children and young people?

As adults, it is our obligation and responsibility to make sure their opportunities for participation are more than just symbolic. They must be involved from the earliest stages of decision-making. This way, they learn about the responsibilities that come with rights and the impact their decisions have on others. At the same time, decision makers are held more accountable when engaging children and young people in these processes.

There are promising practices of meaningful participation that can be modelled in all of Thai society, which is one of UNICEF's priorities for the next five years under its new Country Programme in Thailand. These include informal mechanisms, such as real-time surveys and social media platforms, or more formal systems, such as student and youth councils and parliaments.

UNICEF recently facilitated young people's participation in shaping the national five-year development plan in a workshop with the National Economic and Social Development Council, and in developing a curriculum for 21st century skills through students' feedback with the Ministry of Education and with Thailand Education Partnership. These are great examples of meaningful participation that can be replicated by other government entities and organisations to ensure that policy decisions meet the actual needs of the young generation, who will very soon become the adults responsible for running the society and bear the consequences of these decisions.

UNICEF partners with the Children and Youth Council of Thailand, the largest youth network in the country, to support children and young people's participation in decision-making at the national and sub-national level. And within UNICEF, the Young People Advisory Board was formed this year from diverse groups from all over Thailand to help inform our work and make UNICEF more relevant and effective for the population it serves. Also to support Thailand's Covid-19 recovery, UNICEF is gathering the voices of children and young people on their concerns amid the second year of the pandemic to inform the government's efforts.

Based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF is committed to support the Thai government in protecting and fulfilling children's rights, including their right to participation, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and equally, to be protected as they exercise these important rights.

Let us take this opportunity to reflect and see how we can engage children and young people in constructive dialogues. Let us all commit to ask, listen, and act.

This Op-Ed was originally published on Bangkok Post on November 15, 2021: