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From the Archives: Empowering Tomorrow’s Leaders by Understanding Child Participation in Decision Making

In a rapidly evolving world, the voices of our youth are more crucial than ever. Efforts to amplify their voices have been underway for quite some time. The United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989, a landmark international agreement that champions the rights and well-being of children worldwide. Central to this convention is the principle of child participation, ensuring that children have a say in decisions that affect their lives. 

The CRC, comprising 54 articles, lays down the framework for ensuring children’s rights across various spheres of life. Article 12 is particularly significant as it underscores the right of children to freely express their views and have them consider matters concerning them. This provision marks a significant milestone in recognizing children not merely as passive recipients of care but as active participants in shaping their own destinies. 

Child participation, as outlined in Chapter 3 of YUVA’S ‘Facilitating Children’s Participation in the Urban: A Toolkit for Practitioners,’ is crucial for upholding the rights of children and fostering inclusive governance processes. By recognizing children as rights-holders and active agents of change, participation empowers them to contribute meaningfully to decision-making that directly affects their lives. Through mechanisms such as access to information, support, feedback, and avenues for expression, children can voice their perspectives, share experiences, and offer insights that inform policies, laws, and frameworks. 

Moreover, child participation promotes social equity by ensuring that diverse voices are heard, including those of marginalised and vulnerable children. By actively working to include all children, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, ability, or background, participation aligns with the principle of ‘leave no one behind’ advocated by the United Nations. However, it’s essential to approach participation with sensitivity and respect, acknowledging that it cannot be forced and requires genuine partnership with children. By creating inclusive spaces, providing adequate support, and addressing risks, stakeholders can nurture a culture of ongoing participation that fosters holistic child development and strengthens democratic governance processes. 

In this context, the ‘South and Central Asia’s Children, Working for Children’s Right to Participation’, a book housed at the YUVA Urban Resource Centre, provides valuable guidance for facilitating child participation. It was published by the Save the Children Fund, South and Central Asia Office, Kathmandu, Nepal, in the year 1997 and focuses on issues pertaining to child participation in development, disclosure, policy and practice. The primary objective is to spark discussions around the value, constraints, opportunities, and challenges of involving children in the development process. By documenting evidence from across South and Central Asia, the aim is to extract valuable lessons that can enhance child-focused development practices. 

Within the book, an article titled ‘Children: The Actual Managers’ penned by   Joanna Hill and Pashupati Sapkota, challenges prevailing definitions that label children as dependent, innocent, vulnerable, and unable. Such descriptors, the author of the article argues, undermine children’s inherent abilities, fostering pity and sympathy rather than respect. According to the author, children themselves are managers, operators, facilitators and teachers. While not every child encompasses all these attributes, given the chance to showcase their innate abilities, they can become guides for the entire community. To unlock this potential, children require opportunities for group solidarity and effective facilitation. This perspective advocates for viewing children not merely as recipients of aid but as active contributors and leaders in their communities when provided with the right support and opportunities.  

Another article, titled ‘Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship’ written by R. Hart,  delves into ‘The Ladder of Participation,’ unveiling eight levels. It commences with ‘Manipulation,’ where children unknowingly act without understanding the issues. Progressing to’”Participation,’ children enthusiastically join events, yet remain oblivious to the cause. ‘Tokenism’ follows, granting a semblance of voice but limiting genuine choice. The ladder ascends with ‘Assigned but Ladder Informed,’ marking the initiation of authentic participation, emphasising comprehension, meaningful roles, and voluntary involvement. 

As we climb, ‘Consulted and Informed’ refers to projects designed by adults, where children’s opinions are sincerely considered. ‘Adult initiated, shared decision with children’ represents a stage where decision-making becomes a collaborative effort. The ladder reaches new heights with ‘Children initiated and directed,’ showcasing youngsters conceptualising and executing intricate projects. At the pinnacle lies ‘Child Initiated, shared decisions, with adults’. Projects at this level are quite rare. This is not due to the absence of a desire to be useful on the part of children. It is rather the absence of caring adults attuned to the particular interests of young people. 

There is another article titled ‘Children and Participation: Efforts and Endeavours of Child Brigade’ authored by S A Chaudhary, which details the endeavours of the Child Brigade in Bangladesh shedding light on their impactful initiatives. This project’s main objective was to empower a group of underprivileged street children, letting them break free from their monotonous roles in the development process and actively participate in shaping their surroundings. The organisation specifically selected a cohort of working street children in Dhaka, aged between 10 to 16 years, who demonstrated potential leadership qualities. At the preliminary level of the project life cycle, key activities involved collecting personal information about the participating children, gauging their perceptions and aspirations, and collaboratively establishing monitoring indicators. Additionally, observations were made to understand the coping mechanisms employed by the children. At the secondary level, the focus shifted towards facilitating the development of the children’s communication mechanisms, actively involving them in decision-making processes, and delegating various activities. This stage aimed to keenly observe and evaluate each child’s specific personality traits, group status, intelligence, and leadership qualities. 

Moving to the tertiary level, the project emphasised activities such as re-integration into their daily lives, active involvement in program planning, problem identification, and providing guidance for problem-solving. Organisational responsibilities were delegated, and education on child rights and social awareness became paramount. The overarching goal at this level was to gain insights into the individual aptitudes, emotional conditions, coping strategies, organisational skills, leadership capacities, and group dynamics of each child. Upon successful completion of all three levels, the anticipated outcomes included the development of a sense of self-esteem, fostering group cohesion, and instilling a minimum level of organisational mannerism and practices among the children.   

Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan

In the heart of Mumbai, India, lies a beacon of hope for children: Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan (BASS). This remarkable collective, established over two decades ago, fosters active community engagement and empowers children to be agents of positive change in line with Article 12 of  Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. By championing child participation and promoting sustainable development, BASS paves the way for a more equitable future. It has adopted following objectives for itself: 

  • Building Awareness: BASS recognizes that informed children are empowered children. They strive to equip young minds with knowledge about their rights, fostering a generation that understands and advocates for them. This aligns with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: Quality Education, by ensuring access to information and promoting critical thinking skills. 
  • Fostering Agency: BASS operates on the fundamental principle of child-led development. By actively involving children in decision-making processes, they cultivate leadership skills and a sense of ownership. This echoes SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, by promoting inclusion and participation of marginalised groups, including children. 
  • Championing Sustainability: BASS recognizes the interconnectedness of children’s rights with environmental well-being. They engage children in initiatives like waste management and clean-up drives, contributing to SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. 

Over its two-decades long journey BASS has engaged in several initiatives including the following: 

  • Campaigns for Social Change: From tackling eve-teasing and child abuse to promoting safe spaces and clean surroundings, BASS empowers children to identify and address crucial community issues. This aligns with SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, by promoting safety and well-being for all. 
  • Building Alliances: BASS doesn’t operate in isolation. They build bridges with authorities, community leaders, and media, amplifying their voices and advocating for systemic change. This collaborative approach resonates with SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals, highlighting the power of collective action. 
  • Shaping Policy: Going beyond awareness-raising, BASS actively participates in city development plans and present election manifestos, ensuring children’s voices are heard during decision-making. This aligns with SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, by promoting equal participation in political and economic processes. 

Empowering Children, shaping a Sustainable Future: BASS’s impact transcends mere statistics. They empower children like Amira, who says, “BASS has played a major role in developing my confidence…” By nurturing leadership skills, fostering awareness, and promoting active participation, BASS paves the way for a future where children are not just beneficiaries, but key architects of sustainable development. Their story serves as a powerful reminder that investing in children’s potential is investing in a better tomorrow for all.

The Publication referred to in the post is available at YUVA’s Urban Resource Centre.

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