The role of children in reimagining democracy: what would it take for a generation of children to be considered part of democratic societies?

Guest article by Sarah Rose and Ulrika Cilliers, Save the Children

Children setting the agenda

In the lead up to the 2017 Kenyan elections, tens of thousands of children across the country united to express their views over the priorities the government should address. These children came from different social backgrounds and collectively they expressed their desire, through the medium of a charter, for peace, education, food security and the creation of opportunities to participate in public decision-making processes. Child representatives presented these recommendations to politicians who in turn responded positively, and some have acted on these concerns.

Across the world we have seen an increase in youth-led movements making a difference in society. The student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control, March for Our Lives, saw nearly two million people protest in the United States and many more across the world. And more recently in Bangladesh tens of thousands of students came together to protest for reforms in the transportation sector, and demand the right to the freedom of expression. These movements demonstrate that when children and young people are given a platform and a trigger for action they can make a big difference to our society and change it for the better.

Children have the ability to be powerful advocates and draw attention from decision-makers and the media. And importantly, the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by almost all countries, provides children with the right to take civic action, participate in public decision-making and be part of shaping democratic societies.

There are many more examples of children setting the agenda. In Colombia, for example, children submitted their own report to inform the recent UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review for Colombia; in West Africa children participated in setting a regional agenda to end child marriage; in the Philippines voices from children informed and set the agenda for legislation in emergencies; and in Norway children participated in an alternative election.

These experiences are often transformational for children. They create confidence, critical awareness and the ability to generate change and transform attitudes within their communities, as a recent example from Nepal shows. These experiences help to build the civil society of the future.

Children as actors in society

In Bolivia children are elected by their peers to represent their voices in a children’s council, advocating towards decision-makers.

In Mali some presidential candidates have signed the Declaration of Children of Mali, which calls for a revision of child marriage laws, education and universal healthcare.

In Mexico young leaders are central to building safe schools and eliminating violence in their communities.

In Yemen children participate in child parliament structures to promote, monitor and defend their rights and influence policy-making. Through this structure children have contributed to representing issues related to children in Yemen, using their own voices.

Why aren’t children considered equal members of democratic societies?

Despite these inspiring examples, children often lack the opportunity to engage in civic action and influence the social and political change needed to improve their situation and that of the communities that they live in.

Restrictions in civic space are a real barrier for children. A study conducted by Save the Children and the Centre for Children’s Rights at Queen’s University, Belfast, UK, showed that children face specific challenges due to their legal or cultural status. For example, only 34 per cent of children surveyed felt safe expressing their views in public and only 38 per cent felt safe joining a public protest or demonstration. Further, the study showed that children want a closer connection with government structures, particularly at the local level. It recommended that children need improved access to the internet and child-friendly information along with better opportunities to organise and come together to learn about rights and take joint action.

Added to this is the role of adults. As the survey identified, children often identify adults as a key barrier to the realisation of their rights to take civic action and participate in public decision-making. In many countries, children are best seen as vulnerable and in need of protection, and at worst as the property of adults. Adults argue that it might be unsafe and that children are not physically, socially, or emotionally equipped to handle these situations.

What are the drivers of change?

Children’s rights to take civic action, participate in public decision-making and influence change in society need to be recognised and secured in law. Legal reform can include mechanisms to promote meaningful engagement along with a consideration of the voting age, as these provide the most recognisable ways of making government accountable.

But legal reform is not enough. We also need to understand and address the cultural and social practices, at an individual, community, national, international and organisational level, that create barriers to children’s civic engagement and participation, along with how these practices change in different civic spaces, utilising tools like the CIVICUS monitor.

So where to from here?

There is evidence to show that when children are able to exercise their rights to take civic action and participate they bring new insights about their situation and provide creative solutions to difficult circumstances. It also helps children to understand democratic processes and develop their future capacity and willingness to participate in democracy and advance a culture of human rights.

Societies cannot be considered truly democratic and participatory without meaningful opportunities for children, including the most marginalised and excluded groups of children, to play their role. Governments have a key role to play, with a duty to:

  • Put in place and implement laws that guarantee the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, expression and access to information - online and offline - for children as well as adults, including by removing legal and administrative obstacles against children establishing their own organisations.
  • Provide age-appropriate and timely public information in languages and formats that children understand.
  • Establish in law and resource child-friendly, inclusive and safe permanent mechanisms and spaces where children can engage meaningfully with decision-makers and make recommendations on laws, polices, budgets and service provision.
  • Systematically promote the importance of children’s participation in public processes, address negative attitudes towards children and build the capacity of government officials and state employees to engage meaningfully with children.  

If we want to see children as peers and partners in civil society-led efforts to improve democratic spaces, we as adult-led civil society must open ourselves up to partnerships with children. We need to push for the creation of public and political environments where children’s voices are valued by adults, their participation encouraged and their recommendations given due weight; influence legal reform; create change within our own organisations; and support children to gain confidence, an understanding and the skills required to take civic action and influence change. We need to question our internal values and acknowledge the wealth of experiences and insight that children have, and then progressively step back and let children take centre stage, ensuring their safe participation.