Thirty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was adopted. The UNCRC is the most ratified human rights convention. Only the USA has not yet ratified the UNCRC. Article 12 of the UNCRC recognises children’s right to participate in decisions that affect them. Since the UNCRC’s ratification, children and young people’s participation has been encouraged by many initiatives in schools, in communities or at the national level with decision-makers. However, the way children and young people participate in decision-making is often problematic in practice. Many participatory initiatives have been developed across different countries and contexts, but often without a clear definition of what children and young people’s participation is (Lansdown 2014).
In 2009, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (a group of independent experts who monitor the implementation of the UNCRC) clarified the term ‘participation’ as: “Ongoing processes, which include information sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes.” (CRC/C/GC/12 para 3)
In practice, including children and young people in decision making can raise challenges that frustrate children, young people and adults. It is recognised that children and young people generally have positive experiences of participation but that their views have little impact to no impact on decision-making (Tisdall et al 2014). Indeed, children and young people’s participation processes “have sought to raise the voices of children and young people as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve positive transformational change” (Johnson 2015: 159).
During my work for NGOs with World Vision and my research at the University of Edinburgh, I reflected on my practice in working for NGOs in the field of child participation and how we can implement better children’s participation.
Here it’s my recipe to change the mind-set of adults to implement better child participation!
In order not to be anxious about participation, we need to think about the benefits of changes for children and young people and for adults as well. New things make people uneasy, especially when they imply a change of mindset. Participation means a change of mind and behaviour in taking seriously into consideration the view of the child; but in some societies children ‘don’t exist’. Participation is to understand each other; to feel free to speak without fear; to take part in dialogue in the family, in school, in the community, with decision-makers and within the NGO.
When we want to make a change in our life, we need to consider the ‘time elements’. We can change, but to do so we need to know the meaning of ‘participation’. We need to be ‘motivated’ to do it (know the benefits) and to take action, to practise it (the knowledge that we have a safe space to reflect on it will help). We need to make an effort to initiate change and to achieve it.
We all need to incorporate some ‘ingredients’ to bring about change. We need self-confidence and determination. Changes consume time (even weeks or years), but the important thing is that when we have the knowledge, we should immediately start to internalise and utilise it. Indeed, participation needs to be practised in day-to-day life in order to understand its benefits rather than only talked about theoretically.
In the process of change we may come across many hurdles, but we need to sustain a positive attitude and commitment to continue. We need to find a person with whom to discuss our difficulties can be an asset. We can also recall our achievements since the beginning of the process and be proud of our accomplishments so far.
All this form a ‘recipe’ for accepting the true meaning of participation. Until we do this, participation will remain only a concept to preach, but it will not be practised.
-Tisdall, E. K. M., Gadda, A. & Butler, U. (2014) Introduction: Children and young people’s participation in collective decision-making.
-Johnson, V. (2015) ‘Valuing children’s knowledge: the politics of listening’. In: Eyben, R., Guijt, I., Roche, C., Shutt, C.  Le Borgne, C. (2016) Implementing Children’s Participation at the Community Level: The Practices of Non-Governmental Organisations. Thesis, (PhD), The University of Edinburgh.