5 November 2012

Africa: Child Participation - Beyond Window Dressing

Photo: Glenna Gordon/UNESCO
Paynesville Community Elementary School in Monrovia.

How does one ensure meaningful participation of children in matters concerning them, and what needs to be done to guarantee effective and efficient government investment in children?

The second and final day of the 2nd Southern Africa Conference on Children's Rights held in Midrand outside Johannesburg, heard from children themselves, as well as researchers and specialists as it considered these questions.

The secretary of the children's parliament in Mozambique, 17-year-old Acacio Machava, spoke about the uneven opportunities given to children, depending on the outlook of parents, and said he wanted to see more opportunities for development among children in his country.

A member of the children's parliament in Zimbabwe, Lisa Chimutumbira, 17, said interventions were needed to help girls who were subject to emotional, sexual and physical abuse, as well as being forced into early marriages or dropping out of school because "someone has impregnated them".

The presentations of these children, as well as others from Swaziland and South Africa, provided an obvious example of the value of child participation in deliberations about children's rights. But, as Zambian psychologist Petronella Mayeya pointed out, there are different levels of child participation - some more meaningful than others.

Mayeya, who works for Save the Children Sweden in Lusaka, offered a hierarchy of levels of child participation. At the worst end of the spectrum these included manipulation (children endorse issues or carry placards for an adult agenda), decoration (children perform at an event but are not involved in any way), and tokenism (children speak, but have no choice of subject or style). Far more meaningful and positive examples of child participation included projects or events in which children were able to determine their own priorities and programmes.

South African researcher Glynis Clacherty, who has worked extensively with children across the continent, reminded delegates that there were many contexts in which children already participated actively. These included children running households or bringing in income.

For example, young boys in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, whose job it was to look after the village cattle, contributed to the community's income in consultation with older men. While in northeast Tanzania, children determined the annual budget breakdown for their youth club projects.

Clacherty offered three key reasons why adults should involve children in the process of research. "Firstly, because children can tell us something we don't know. Secondly, because participation isn't only a right, it's an enabler of rights. It allows children to take hold of their rights and make them their own; and thirdly because it benefits children - it boosts their self-esteem and self-confidence and builds children's sense of themselves."

It was critical to go beyond tokenism, said Clacherty, and to break down the power differential between adults and children. For children to participate meaningfully in processes that concern them, it is necessary to take time to build trust and to create a child-friendly environment tailored to the age and capabilities of children, she said.

Clacherty concluded in saying that it was critical to create an environment in which children were protected. "Work with care in all things," she said.

A common call among those advocating for the rights of children is for budgets to be "child-friendly". According to Russell Wildeman, manager of the economic governance programme at the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa), however, this is a futile call.

He said the budget process did not consider how to promote the rights of children - or those of women, the disabled or any other specific group.

In spite of constitutional provisions that made the budget process in South Africa open and transparent, it was still relatively inaccessible to special lobbying and advocacy, he said.

Wildeman said civil society organisations needed to consider how best to influence the budget process. Was it effective to target the process as a whole, or should it be done piecemeal - focusing on different government departments?

"The time has passed where sector groups can work on their own and lobby government and politicians. The fragmentation of civil society is no longer an acceptable paradigm," said Wildeman. Rather, he said civil society groups should take responsibility for the kind of society they wanted and should then work together to ensure that sufficient funds were channeled to different government departments to address a range of issues.

Wildeman said sectoral advocacy has not delivered good benefits, because if achievements were made in certain sectors, it all too often involved losses in other equally important areas.

"Advocating for children's rights without championing for the kind of society we desire is no longer appropriate," he said. Civil society interventions in government processes was likely to be more effective if they combined their efforts and advocated for a broader, shared picture, said Wildeman.

A prerequisite for any kind of assessment of how public money is spent was access to information. "Not having access to budgets and quality information makes it almost impossible to assess if there are adequate funds for children," concluded Wildeman.

The conference, which was sponsored by Save the Children Sweden, as well as other partners, ended with a statement calling on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to take various steps to protect children's rights. These included the adoption of a specific children's protocol and ensuring that each country in the region has a state-funded children's parliament. The conference also called on SADC to address violence, especially sexual violence against children, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and education.

Sue Valentine helped facilitate the conference proceedings for Save the Children.

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