Children and adolescent’s participation in decisions that affect them is key. More and more, decision makers are realizing that they need to consult with children when they are making decisions about children, meaning that children have more opportunities to weigh in on issues that impact on their lives.
Not knowing how to manage a good participation process or not listening to past lessons learned, however, can make it difficult for children and adolescents to take advantage of opportunities offered them to input into these decisions.
Children’s rights to participate
A child is anyone under the age of 18. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC), in addition to survival, development and protection rights, children also have participation rights.
- Children have rights to be listened to, to freely express their views on all matters that affect them, and to freedom of expression, thought, association and access to information.
- Participation should promote the best interest of the child and enhance the personal development of each child.
- All children have equal rights to participation without discrimination.
- All children have the right to be protected from manipulation, violence, abuse and exploitation
from the “Minimum Standards for Children’s Participation 10th draft”, written by Helen Veitch,*drawing on Articles 2, 3, 12, 13, 17, 19, 34 and 36 in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
What are the principles of participation? (Summarized from the above document)
An ethical approach: transparency, honesty and accountability
Adults involved need to follow ethical and participatory practices and put children’s best interests first. Because there are power and status imbalances between adults and children. An ethical approach is needed in order for children’s participation to be genuine and meaningful.
A child friendly environment
The atmosphere should be safe, welcoming and encouraging. Because in order for children to feel comfortable participating they need to feel safe and supported.
Equality of opportunity
Space should be ensured for those groups of children who typically suffer discrimination and are often excluded from activities. Because children, like adults, are not a homogeneous group and participation should be open to all.
Participation promotes the safety and protection of children
Child protection policies and procedures are an essential part of participatory work with children. Because organisations have a duty of care to children with whom they work and everything should be done to minimize the risk to children of abuse and exploitation or other potentially negative consequences of their participation.
Child participation in national, regional and global consultations
Children’s right to participate is key. However in practice, a safe and open environment for child participation at national, regional and global events can be difficult to ensure. It requires resources as well as a great deal of preparation.
Over the past several years, I’ve participated in some disappointing events where:
- lessons learned about effective child participation and child protection were ignored
- those tasked with ensuring child participation and protection were powerless to influence event organizers to ensure quality and safe participation
- those organizing the event or sending children to it simply had no idea that there are standards and protocols and plenty of lessons learned that they should have taken into consideration.
Minimum standards for child participation
For example, back in 2005, several organizations in East Asia and the Pacific* collaborated to produce minimum standards for child participation in national and regional consultation events. These were initially developed for the UN Study on Violence against Children.
They offer a comprehensive overview of how to manage child participation and can be used as a guide for other national, regional or global events where children participate. They should be considered whenever organizing, hosting or participating in an event where children are being consulted or their participation is desired.
You can have the most amazing and wonderful children present and the very best intentions, but fall very short of your goals of quality child participation because logistics and organization are poor and/or child participation and protection protocols are not followed.
What often goes wrong?
Child participation holds tremendous value, but when it’s not properly facilitated or supported; results can be negative on many levels, including:
- Children are tokenized or used
- Poor organization gets in the way of participation
- Important opportunities are missed
- Children become frustrated
- Children are put at risk
- Money and time are wasted
Oh, the things I’ve seen…
Mistakes those new to organizing events or supporting child participation in events often make:
- Having singing and dancing in traditional costumes be the main role for children
- Setting up totally new groups to participate in an event rather than working with existing groups
- Not understanding the concept of ‘representativity’ and not ensuring democratic and fair selection processes of those children who participate
- Not realizing (for global events) that the visa application process takes a very long time, and requires visa invitation letters and appointments in advance
- Forgetting to get children their required vaccines
- Not realizing that children may not have birth certificates or passports, meaning the visa process takes even longer
- Not preparing children well for visa interviews, including the possibility that their visa request will be denied
- Not allocating time and budget for travel necessary to obtain visas, permission from parents who do not live with the child (child trafficking laws often require this now) and other documentation
- Not obtaining permission slips, medical histories, media releases from parents and/or not obtaining travel insurance for children
- Not getting the above materials translated into a language parents can understand
- Not having child protection policies in place and adhering to them
- Not doing background checks on people who will be working with children
- Thinking it’s OK to send children overseas without a chaperone, not budgeting for chaperones
- Forgetting that not all children speak a major language like English, Spanish, Portuguese or French and will require translation of all materials before the event as well as constant translation during the event, and support following the event if they will continue to participate in event follow up
Mistakes that even experienced child participation facilitators make:
- Influencing too much on what children will say
- Using children to promote the sponsoring organization or INGO’s agenda
- Having children represent an NGO or INGO rather than representing themselves, their own groups or their communities
- Having children wear NGO/ INGO t-shirts, caps and other branded items
- Asking children from some countries (usually those from countries deemed ‘exotic’) to bring traditional costumes and share their culture, but not asking the same from other countries
- Creating/building up ‘professional’ child participants and creating child star speakers
- Relying on the same children all the time to represent because they have passports or visas or prior experience
- Only bringing children who speak a major language or live in the capital to events
- During sessions, not organizing group work in ways that facilitate communication across different languages
- Sending any adult as a chaperone, rather than sending the best or the right adult as a chaperone
- Not planning ahead on how children will be supported when they get back home to continue inputting into global networks and processes
- Not ensuring a space for children to share their experiences with home offices and groups
- Making children work long hours to fit everything in
- Not giving children pocket money so that those with less means can also purchase small things for themselves or for family members
- Housing children in fancy hotels with fancy food that they may not be used to; (not cooking enough good quality rice at lunch and dinner!)
- Not realizing children may need to be shown how to use things like hotel showers, air conditioning, toilets
- Not realizing that children may not want to sleep alone in a room
- Not providing additional warm clothing for children if the conference climate is colder than their own
- Not realizing that a trip overseas creates culture shock, children may feel lonely for their families
- Not ensuring that children have the means to call home as soon as they arrive to an event and periodically during their stay
- Not realizing that those facilitating child participation or working on child protection may not have the power to influence event organizers, especially if events are being organized in hierarchical ways with governments and high level committees involved
- Not establishing at what point enough is enough, and children shouldn’t participate because conference organizers simply haven’t created favorable conditions, and children are put at risk or their participation will not be of good quality or have any real impact
Mistakes I’ve seen conference and event organizers repeat over and over:
- Focusing on number of children participants rather than quality of participation
- Not providing information with enough lead time for it to be translated and shared with children, or for good planning and selection processes to be done
- Segregating children in parallel events where they don’t interact with adults
- Not giving children space to lead sessions or engage with adults; offering them the last spot in the opening /closing speeches, and giving them a small percentage of the time that the adult speakers are given; or reducing children’s participation time because adults have gone over their allotted time
- Patronizing children by clapping every time a child says something, or saying “oh that’s such a great idea!” not treating children respectfully as equals
- Encouraging adults to get their photos taken with ‘exotic looking’ children in costumes
- Not balancing the number of local participants and global participants
- Not understanding that they need certain conditions to be available to fulfill child protection protocols (eg., children and adults need separate rooms; boys and girls as well as older/younger youth need to have separate rooms; the venue selection needs to have a measure of safety/security to prevent outsiders from taking advantage of any of the participating children, etc.)
- Packing too many activities into the day and leaving children no time to rest
- Not allowing any time for sight-seeing or recreation
- Thinking all children have access to internet and computers to fill out registration forms, etc. and to participate in networks post conference
- Not realizing that they need to listen to child participation and protection committees and adjust their ideas for their event so that children can effectively participate and are not put at risk
- Thinking they can hire just anybody to manage child participation at the event
- Not including a child participation/child protection point person in the organizing committee
So, what then?
I do honestly believe that children should participate and have a say in these issues, and that only by listening to children can decision-makers ensure that they are coming to the best decisions that benefit, resonate with, or have the best impact on children’s lives.
However unless proper organization, logistics, preparation and care are taken, these opportunities can be frustrating or a waste of an opportunity for everyone involved, and the validity of the efforts can easily be questioned.
Child participation needs to be taken seriously, not as an add-on or nice to have or cute to have. Unless and until regional and global events can ensure that this is happening, it might be a better investment to work with children at local and national levels.
Event organizers and child participation facilitators need to look at existing protocols, documentation, minimum standards and lessons learned and use them. Organizations shouldn’t be coming up with the same ‘lessons learned’ after every event and repeating the same mistakes at the next one. Surely we can do better than that.
What guidelines does your organization have? What mistakes have you made and learned from? What recommendations can you give? How can we get it right? Please share your thoughts in the comments section…
*The following organizations participated on the steering committee that elaborated the Minimum Standards: UNICEF East Asia Pacific Regional Office, World Health Organisation, Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ILO IPEC Asia and the Pacific, NGO Advisory Panel on the UN Study on Violence Against Children, Save the Children Alliance, Child Workers in Asia, ECPAT International, World Vision International APRO, Plan International, Terre des Hommes Germany, ASEAN Foundation.
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