Does children’s participation in public decision-making lead to better services? More than 70% of people think so, and similar numbers feel that it helps children become more empowered, according to our Eurochild survey. So why do EU governments still not listen to the 166 million children who make up a full third of their population?
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which binds all EU member states, establishes the right for children to express their views on all matters that affect them. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has made clear that governments have a responsibility to ensure that those views are heard by the people making decisions, and taken seriously.
The EU recommends that Member States promote children’s participation in decision-making, including by reaching out to and supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
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Listening to children, taking their views and ideas seriously and responding positively makes a difference to children and public services. It contributes to a culture of respect and reciprocity, and ultimately improves democratic engagement.
In Scotland, children met with the full Cabinet to discuss children’s rights
Usually decisions affecting children are taken by public decision-makers from behind their desks, without ever consulting someone below the age of 18. So it’s not surprising that often these decisions ignore the impact they will have on children. This is even more true for children in vulnerable situations, such as those living in poverty or with a disability and those from minority backgrounds.
“Nothing about us, without us”: this slogan expresses the attitude public decision-makers need to bear in mind when making policies that affect children.
There are some promising initiatives. In Scotland, representatives from the Children’s Parliament and Scottish Youth Parliament met with the full Scottish Cabinet, including the First Minister, to discuss a range of children’s rights issues. The children spoke about the importance of equal protection from violence and the need to increase the age of criminal responsibility.
The meeting resulted in a legal provision in the Children and Young People Act 2014, ensuring that Ministers take children’s views into account when making decisions. There are now annual meetings between ministers and children, and the cabinet agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility. Cabinet members reported learning a lot from listening to children talk about their lived experiences.
Apart from better policies, the participation of children also contributes to a shift in attitude towards specific groups of children. In Spain, a group of Roma youth met with members of the Catalan Parliament’s Intergroup on the Roma People, hoping to boost inclusive policies. The Catalan politicians said the meeting had changed their thinking and made them more aware of how young Roma do not feel included in existing youth policies.
Ireland is currently the only country in the world with a national child participation strategy
Similarly, in the Netherlands, children experiencing poverty have discussed their anti-poverty recommendations with local government representatives. Policies have improved, and young people have begun to feel included and able to participate in social activities. Breaking the silence around poverty empowers the children who are suffering its consequences.
These are only a few of the examples of children being given the chance to influence public decision-making. Of course it also brings challenges.
Disadvantaged children often do not trust adults, and are harder for government to reach. They may not see the value of engaging with political decision-makers. It takes time, specialised training and political commitment to address these difficulties — but also a space that allows children to meaningfully participate is needed.
Disadvantaged children often do not trust adults, and are harder for government to reach
To address these challenges, governments need a child participation strategy to support children’s voices. These strategies could be developed at local, regional and national levels. They would need to include measures to protect and promote the right to participate and create spaces for it to be exercised, whilst also ensuring inclusion and promoting accountability.
Ireland is currently the only country in the world with a national child participation strategy, developed with the involvement of children themselves.
The EU too supports the development of national child participation strategies through the European Pillar of Social Rights.
At the bi-annual Eurochild conference in Opatija, Croatia later this month, we will share experiences of how public policy for children has been improved by involving them directly in the policy-making. Civil society can be a support and ally for governments to connect and engage with children and in this way improve public decision-making. — Mieke Schuurman
(Picture credits: Flickr/Scottish Government/First Minister of Scotland)