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Children Have a Say by Bu Wei, November 25, 2014 Adjust font size:

It should be noted that “children’s participation” is not an integral part of our traditional culture. Just imagine what a good child is like in our mind! Usually, it’s those “obedient” or “sensible” children. “Obedient” means that a child should obey to an adult; and “sensible” means that a child should understand an adult’s matters, rather than making troubles. Feudalist ethics (e.g., the hierarchy of the monarch, the minister, the father and the son) have defined that children should be obedient to adults, and this has deeply influenced our culture and conduct. In such a case, it is very difficult for adults to listen to, pay attention to, and give consideration to children’s voice. Since1991, influenced by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by the National People's Congress , China has done many significant attempts to promote children’s participation, for instance, holding regional or national children’s forums, etc. Local governments and schools also organized activities for children’s participation, yet there is oftentimes a misunderstanding on children’s participation such as “children’s attendance is participation”. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the concept and value of “children’s participation” with the framework of children’s rights, and rethink the issues on children’s participation in Chinese context. This article will discuss the following key issues: (1) What is children’s participation? (2) Why is children’s participation needed? (3) What are approaches to children’s participation?

What is children’s participation?

The most common misunderstanding about children’s participation is that children’s “attendance” or “appearance” in public meetings is regarded as “children’s participation”. For example, a child is invited to make a speech at a conference, children are dressed beautifully in front of leaders when they attend a social activity, a sports meeting or a celebrating occasion, and children are requested to give an account of their miserable experience in a public place, etc. In particular, a child who makes a speech at a conference is often viewed by adults as a “good representative”. Instructed by adults, these children tend to declaim like adults and express adults’ viewpoints in an imitating way. If a child is merely requested to read out or perform what they have prepared beforehand, then, this is actually the adults’ control over the child or they take the child as an ornament of the activity, not children’s participation at all. Children’s participation, in a real sense, should be a process in which all children are able to share the rights.

Usually, the article 12 of CRC is taking as important source of the laws and policies, although this term “participation” itself does not appear in the text of article 12, and lacks for an accepted definition. However, Committee on the Right of the Child passed a GENERAL COMMENT No. 12 “The right of the child to be heard” in 2009, pointed out that states parties should encourage the child to form a free view and should provide an environment that enables the child to exercise her or his right to be heard, and exert all efforts to listen to or seek the views of those children speaking collectively. Moreover, the views expressed by children may add relevant perspectives and experience and should be considered in decision-making, policymaking and preparation of laws and/or measures as well as their evaluation. These processes are usually called participation. The exercise of the child’s or children’s right to be heard is a crucial element of such processes. The concept of participation emphasizes that including children should not only be a momentary act, but the starting point for an intense exchange between children and adults on the development of policies, programmes and measures in all relevant contexts of children’s lives.

Therefore, what lies at the core is the “rights”. It means that a): children have opportunities (or channels) to express opinions about their interested matters; b): these opinions should be heard by adults and given attention to; and c): when making a decision, consider whether or not adopting children’s suggestions according to the principle of children’s best interests. Article 12 manifests that the child holds rights which have an influence on her or his life, and not only rights derived from her or his vulnerability (protection) or dependency on adults (provision), also, the Convention recognizes the child as a subject of rights.

In practice, we often defined “Children’s Participation” as process in which children can exercise, share, and realize the rights of the child. The following points as reference criteria for real children’s participation were highlighted:

(1) Including children should not only be a momentary act or an individual one-off event, but a process that children can influence policies about their lives.

(2) Children must be provided with opportunities to think about their issues and needs they faced, and with channels to express these issues and needs by their ways they used and liked such as play, drama, body language, drawing and painting and others.

(3) These channels must be transparent, informative, accessible, and child-friendly to listen to children.

(4) Children’s views have to be treated with respect. Not only respective for participation, also accountable. Children are entitled to be provided with clear feedback on how their participation has influenced any outcomes.

(5) Participation must be inclusive, avoid existing patterns of discrimination.

(6) Participation must be supported by training with full information about their right to express their views freely and their views to be given due weight, and how this participation will take place, its scope, purpose, work methods, and potential impacts.

If children participation collectively in Chinese context, we will pay seriously attention to Children’s representation: children’s representatives must be those who are elected by children democratically and who are able to represent the interests of certain groups of children, rather than those who know little about their own community and group. Children’s representatives may not necessarily be the traditionally accepted “good children”. His or her task is not to talk about their good deeds at a public occasion, but to represent the voice of his or her group.

Meaningful children’s participation, in particular, must hold adults accountable, including: listening to and consider children’s opinions, helping children express opinions in a better way, and consulting with them to make a decision, etc. This is a big challenge to Chinese education and adult workers. Adults should learn to listen to young people’s voices, learn how to consult with children democratically, and learn how to promote to build up children’s capability of making decisions rather than make decisions on behalf of them.

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