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On the fifteenth of January 1991, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was enforced in the UK. One of the key rights laid down by the convention in article twelve, is that every child has a right to participate in matters that affect them. This right (and the entire convention) is not only enforced in the UK but by every member of the United Nations bar Somalia and the United States. Not only does the UK ratify the international legislation on children’s rights but they have put in place national schemes and legislations on the matter. It is therefore evident that, nationally and internationally, child participation is now seen as an essential feature of our human rights. It is important to try to understand why this is so.
They key idea behind the right to participation is that a child’s view should be given the weight it deserves on the basis of the child’s age and maturity. After the right was passed, children were allowed to contribute their opinions on highly influential decisions that affect them such as; adoption, separation from parents, name changes, rights to health and education (UNICEF). This is highly significant as it allows a child to have some level of control over their important life decisions which in turn will hopefully improves their quality of life. In fact, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) goes far enough to suggest that the right to participation “… is relevant to the exercise of all other rights, within the family, the school and the larger community context”. From this it can be argued that the reason why the right to participate is important for a child is because it is a gateway to all their other rights. In theory, the right to participation gives a child the right to represent themselves.
However, in order for this right to be carried out successfully, children need to be viewed in a certain way. For one, children need to be accepted as fully fledged individuals. Uprichard (2008) suggests children can either be seen as ‘beings’ who ‘actively construct’ their childhood or ‘becomings’ who are in preparation for adulthood. Child rights rely on the idea that children are beings and therefore their present is just as valuable as their future. If we follow the view that children are merely ‘becomings’ then this form of belittling means that children are not valued as citizens of today and thus their potential within society is lost. As a result, challenges facing children ‘here and now’ are ignored (Matthews, H., Limb, M., in press. Defining an agenda for the geography of children. Progress in Human GeographyMatthews and Limb, in press).
Children also need to be valued as reliable social agents. In a journal article by Frankel (2007) it states “Without this move to engage children in the context of the social world they inhabit, policy and practice will remain based on generalisations, clouded by adult perceptions of childhood (Mayall, 2002; Oakley, 1994).” This suggests that children need to be trusted as experts on their own lives, otherwise decisions that affect childhood will be based on the misconceptions of adults on society and childhood. In general, the right to participate is influential in how we perceive children. It is a marked difference from the days where children were ‘seen and not heard’.
Despite the fact that giving children the right to participate allows them to be viewed as fully-fledged individuals, there are critics who believe that the way in which the right to participate works is still too adult-centric. One example of this adult-centrism is the representation of children in a UK family court. Children are given a separate representative whose job it is to act in their best interest but not to advocate the child’s wishes or work to their instruction. Although this is a vast improvement on times where children had no representation, the system is criticised because it prevents a competent child from instructing their legal advocate.
This issue also highlights the difficulties faced by parents and professionals working with families. The convention challenges the power of adults and does not make it clear how much say an adult has in decisions made that involve a child. David Archard (1993) developed the ‘Caretaker Thesis’ which claims that it is the responsibility of the ‘caretaker’ of a child to make sure their needs, be them moral, physical or social, are met; rather than the responsibility of the child. This ultimately limits how much say a child can have because it is difficult to allow a child to make a decision when they will have little responsibility over the consequences.
Lansdown (1995) suggested more reasons why some adults are hesitant when it comes to their child’s right to participate. Firstly, it challenges a parent’s authority to decide what is best for their child; creating a threat to the harmony of family life. Secondly, many believe that childhood should be free from the concerns caused by responsibilities. Clark and Moss (2001) believe that children should also have the right not to participate and the right to privacy. Finally, Lansdown also suggested that a third argument is that children should not be able to have this right if they are not capable of holding responsibilities. On a similar line of thought, Scarre (1989) suggested that the results of allowing such a right may, in fact, be harmful, as children are given the freedom to be left to their inabilities.
However, such arguments to not go without criticism; Franklin and Franklin (1996) suggested that children have always had to make some sort of decisions about their lives, albeit some of the decisions are fairly trivial. Also, it should be irrelevant how good a child is at decision making, as people learn though making mistakes. In addition, they suggested adults themselves are often not very good decision makers. Therefore, the right to participate is highly important in childhood as not only do they get to make decisions about the ‘here and now’ but they also learn important decision making skills for adulthood.
Wyness (2009) suggests that the UNCRC plays a significant role in highlighting and confronting the challenges that face children as well as giving them a political voice. However, as the UNCRC uses a different framework from general human rights it also acts to highlight the separateness of children. This, in turn, leads to the view that children are homogeneous and thus the problems faced my minority groups of children tend to be overlooked (Wyness 2009). It is often these marginalised groups of children that need the most help and can gain the most from the UNCRC.
A good way to evaluate how important the right to participate is to children is to look at real life example of how the UNCRC and national legislations are working. On an international level we can look at the effect of the UNCRC on the less economically developed country, Tajikistan. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Tajikistan in 1993. Despite this, it has been found that even post 1993, it is was a largely held view in Tajikistan that children do not have rights. Important decisions made about a child’s life are decided by parents, family and the state. Few adults in Tajikistan actually believe that children are capable of participating in important decision making and, therefore, the views of children are often not taken seriously. This suggests that the right to participate is only beneficial to children if the right is not supported by the adult population of a country.
This case also brings up the issue of tokenism. Children are unable to properly participate if they are not given the opportunity to understand the consequences of their decisions. This means that their views may not always be taken seriously and that they are vulnerable to manipulation. It is unfair and unethical to give a child a right and yet leave them ignorant of such a fact. This goes to prove that the right to participation is completely insignificant to a child if it is not implemented correctly- which includes the education of both adult and child populations.
The lack of enforcement of the UNCRC in Tajikistan did not go unnoticed. In 2002 the charity UNICEF worked together with the teachers, civil society organisations and policy makers to encourage the country to foster the practice of child participation. As a result, the creation of the Government’s National Plan of Action on Children came about. The plan laid out measures and objectives for the government to follow in order for them to successfully implement the UNCRC. In Tajikistan there is now a network of young people in place who promote the rights of children and television shows have been commissioned to publicise these issues. This suggests that in order for the UNCRC to work there needs to be large scale coordination between all services that involve children. It also highlights the fact that a child’s right to participation can only be beneficial to them if implicated correctly.
To gain more detail on the importance for a child to have the right to participate, the legislations put in place by the British government can be investigated and local and national schemes evaluated. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) holds the responsibility of making sure the UNCRC is being implemented correctly within England. There is also a Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families, who has ministerial responsibility for the representation of children’s views as well as overlooking the DCSF Children and Youth Board. Alongside the Minister of State for Children there is also a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families. The Under-secretary holds ministerial responsibility for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In order to sustain the implementation of child participation in the UK, six youth agencies formed a consortium under the name of Participation Works. These agencies include children’s charities such as Save the Children UK, voluntary services, the British Youth Council and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. The consortium aims to help organisations include children in the development and evaluation of services that have an impact on their lives. To do this they educate children, and their support services, about child rights. Running alongside Participation Works is a scheme called Hear by Right. This scheme provides a standards framework for organisations, in order for them to evaluate and improve their practice and policy on the involvement of children.
The British government base their support of child participation on the research done by Sinclair and Franklin (2000), who identified the following reasons as to why child participation in so important: to uphold children’s rights, to fulfil legal responsibilities, to improve services, to improve decision making, to enhance democratic processes, promote children’s protection, to enhance children’s skills and to enhance self esteem (Every Child Matters). All these reasons suggest that child participation is vital to the well being of all children. As the Every Child Matters website states “Promotion of the participation of children and young people should lead to change”. In return for aiding children in participation organisations benefit (by means of new ideas and better targeted services), communities benefit from “community-minded” youths and the children themselves benefit from the better services.
One way to hear what children have to say is to get them involved in politics. In the UK everyone aged 18 and above has the right to vote but this right is withheld to anyone younger. This is most probably due to the ‘adults know best’ train of thought and the idea that children are not capable of making important political decisions. However, recently children have been given the chance to express their political opinions, not through official voting, but via the creation of the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP). The parliament is comprised of 600 elected Members of Youth Parliament (MYP’s) who organise campaigns and try to influence the official decision makers of matters that affect young people. On the 30th October 2009, for the first time in history, the UK Youth Parliament took over the House of Commons. The MYP’s took the opportunity to debate issues that young people themselves had highlighted as being important. Examples of these issues include: lowering the voting age, tackling youth crime and lowering university fees.
If anything, the UKYP goes to show how wrong the assumption is that children are disinterested in politics. It also makes evident that there are children between the ages of 11 and 18 who are not only capable of forming a political opinion but also capable of expressing such opinions in a politically acceptable manner. Although the UKYP has little direct impact on national politics it will hopefully have a significant indirect effect due to the way it emphasises issues considered important by people under the voting age. The media attention drawn buy the UKYP means that children have a platform to express opinion like never before. By expressing an interest in politics children validate their right to participation.
One popular means by which child participation is encouraged on a more localised scale is that of youth and school councils. This is where children are elected to attend discussions where they are responsible for representing the other children of their area or age cohort. By getting children involved in school councils they have the opportunity to be heard, gain respect within a school, become more involved with school policy and help to create an environment that is democratic and inclusive (Wyness 2003).
However, are child councils really an adequate way of representing all children and giving them the right to participate? Wyness (2009) suggests that child councils do not always, in fact, give a good representation of the diverse problems facing children. Electoral means of representing children tend to increase the inequalities in childhood, as the voices of those that are disadvantaged or socially excluded tend not to be heard. In fact, it is often those that are most advantaged that get elected on to school committees, creating a form of elitism. An ideal alternative would be to look into formally unrepresentative means of child participation.
In 2001, Clark and Moss presented an alternative framework for listening to children, called the ‘Mosiac approach’. It is a method designed especially to help adult listen to younger children, which includes a number of strategies. Firstly, the approach is a multi-method; meaning that it uses the knowledge that children use a number of languages and voices to express themselves. Adults are taught to treat children as experts on their own lives and children, parents and practitioners are encouraged to be reflective on meanings and interpretations. The approach is adaptable to most childhood institutions and can be embedded into early years practice. The key to this approach is to focus on the lived experiences of each child. The first stage to this method is that children and adult collect information on particular issues together and then the adults reflect on what life is like for the children. Then the second stage is a discussion with the children so that they can express their own perspective. This approach allows children to express views in ways they are comfortable with, which is extremely important when involving young children.
The UK, like every other member of the UN that ratified the UNCRC, has to evaluate the progress made in implementing each article. The latest report was submitted in 2008. Many of the 120 recommendations made to improve the lives of children in the UK referenced issues with the implementation of the right to participation. One in particular stated “there has been little progress to enshrine article 12 in education law and policy” (http://www.participationworks.org.uk). A more specific crtiticism is that British children “have no right to appeal their exclusion or to appeal the decisions of a special educational needs tribunal”. This is surprising as the appeal against an exclusion is exactly the sort of situation where child participation is highly important. These findings suggest that even countries with a relatively sophisticated political, judicial and education system find it difficult to uphold the rights given to children by the UNCRC. However, the constant striving to improve the implementation of article 12 shows that a child’s right to participate is viewed with importance.
In answer to the question ‘Why is it important for children to have a right to participate?’ one can argue that the right is important to children for the same reason it is for anyone else. Children face challenges and have concerns like any other group of people and for these to be addressed they need the support of national and international legislation. Just because the implementation of the child’s right to participation faces many difficulties does not make the right any less significant when done correctly. In fact, the difficulties highlight how much work needs to be done in order for children to be able to work to their full potential as a political member of society. The concept that an adult can represent a child without consulting them on their wishes is highly illogical. Therefore, a commonsensical resolution is to listen to children.
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