On March 14th, thousands of students staged walkouts, sit-ins and marches across the US to demand stricter gun control in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in which 17 students lost their lives. More marches are planned.
Already, Florida’s teen activists have achieved reforms that had long evaded gun control advocates: on March 9th, Republican Governor Rick Scott – who received an A+ rating from the NRA in the 2017 election – signed legislation to raise the minimum age of purchase to 21, ban bump stocks, and mandate a three-day waiting period on most firearms purchases. (The NRA is now suing the state for infringement of the Second Amendment.)
Wherever you stand on gun control, the Stoneman Douglas teens pose challenges to policymakers: how can they best serve a constituency whose interests cannot be expressed at the ballot box? Should children be included in policy development, and if so, how?
The letter of the law
In recent years, policymakers have sought to draw women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ citizens and disabled people into the fold. The thinking is simple: policy works best when it is influenced by the constituents it seeks to serve. Or, in other terms, “nothing about us, without us.”
At the recent End Violence summit in Stockholm, youth delegates spoke to Apolitical about their frustrations at feeling excluded from the policymaking process. “Our voices have been heard before, but they aren’t respected,” said Gilberto, a 17-year-old activist from Mexico. Alejandro, a 14-year-old delegate echoed his discontent: “Hearing children’s voices and taking them into account are not the same thing.”
Children’s right to participate is enshrined in international law, despite the paucity of attention children receive in policymaking circles. Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) notes that “the child who is capable of forming his or her own views [has] the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child” and that the child has a right to be heard. (Despite notable steps to clarify the legal implications of Article 12, no firm consensus exists as to exactly how far the right to be heard goes.)
“Hearing children’s voices and taking them into account are not the same thing”
“Children’s rights were historically treated as a joke, as if children would be complaining every time the peas on their school dinner were cold,” Gerison Lansdown, an Associate at the International Institute of Child Rights and Development, told Apolitical. “Politicians trivialised and undermined children’s concerns, their capacity to make any viable contribution, and their honesty. There was a view that children had nothing to say, nothing meaningful to contribute to policy.”
Today, it is the Global South that often leads in creating space for children to participate in politics and policy.
In 2014, the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers successfully campaigned for the legalisation of child labour from the age of 10 and a minimum wage for child workers of $250 a month. In rural southwestern India, children mapped unsafe footpaths in their communities after tens of local children fell to their deaths from unmarked paths next to the district’s numerous quarries in 2011 and 2012. A year later, local government agreed to erect fences and warning signs on the basis of the children’s research.
“Effective policymaking has to involve the people who are directly affected by that policy, otherwise their interests get overlooked,” said Leo Ratledge, Legal Coordinator at the Child Rights International Network.
Nothing but a number?
Not everyone has rallied to the Stoneman Douglas teens’ cause, however – and not all of the criticism has been as outlandish as claims that the teen activists were “crisis actors” deployed by gun law advocates.
Philip H. Devoe, a conservative commentator, cited inappropriate behaviour at the New York City LAB High School walkout as evidence that “perhaps not every schoolkid is worthy of our elected officials’ ear and a vote.” Michelle Malkin of CRTV has instead argued that children’s “knowledge of history, law, and public policy is severely limited … And their moral agency and cognitive abilities are far from fully developed.”
To most on this side of the debate, children’s interests should be considered as and when appropriate – but such concerns do not extend to the unimpeachable right to participate in either politics or policymaking.
“Perhaps not every schoolkid is worthy of our elected officials’ ear and a vote”
According to Ratledge, those arguments are ill-founded: “There’s a hypocrisy there, because it’s an argument we only hear made about children. Nobody’s arguing that certain adults shouldn’t be able to vote because of capacity or because they aren’t engaged enough in the political process. It’s something that we’re only forced to justify when we talk about children.” The same applies to claims that children are too impressionable, he claims.
Lansdown too argues against any notion that children are inherently incapable of engaging with policy, though she notes that their vulnerability does introduce certain caveats to their engagement.
“Any attempt to shift power imbalances creates a backlash: it has for women, for people with disabilities, for black people. It’s threatening to the social norms and the status quo, so you have to be careful because you have a greater responsibility of care to children.”
A workable solution?
Engaging children in policymaking requires sensitivity to their capacities, child-friendly methods of communication, and a complex duty of care. But there are examples showing it can work.
In 2013, Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes signed a document of “20 Commitments to Children” – a wide-ranging commitment that includes preventing violence against Paraguayan youth to reducing infant mortality. The national body for monitoring the promises was placed directly under the executive, and the President committed to annual press conferences with children and advocates to hold the government to account.
Erion Veliaj, Mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, invited children to guide redevelopment plans for the city, building 15 new parks based on children’s designs. According to the mayor, vandalism has plummeted and post-Communist scepticism of publicly funded projects has softened.
Software too has been leveraged for good: the UN used Minecraft to help women and children redesign their cities from Mumbai to Kosovo.
But inclusion in policymaking is not without its pitfalls.
“There have been examples of consultations or youth parliaments being set up, but no notice is taken whatsoever,” said Gerison Lansdown.
“Nothing happens and then children become cynical. At its best, participation doesn’t only empower young people and create better outcomes, but also gives children a real sense that they can make a difference, that democracy is worthwhile, that citizenship is an important duty.
“You have a greater responsibility of care to children”
“At its worst, it breeds a counterproductive cynicism which thinks that politicians are all the same, nobody really listens, and it doesn’t make any difference anyway.”
The students of Stoneman Douglas seem resolute that their concerns will not go unheard. Further protests across the nation are scheduled for April 20th, the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting in 1999.
(Picture credit: Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)