The right to express ones views – and to have them listened to seriously – should be afforded to everyone. Indeed, freedom of opinion and expression are part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Too often, however, this right is denied to those without power or authority: to children in particular.
There are widely held views that children lack the capacity to make informed contributions to decision-making, or that doing so may place them at risk and that their participation will have adverse effect on family and school life. Our experiences of child participation in our various programmes and projects over the years have proven, however, that not only that these concerns are unfounded, but that participation has a widespread positive impact. Children have a unique body of knowledge about their lives, and needs and concerns, together with ideas and views which derive from their direct experience. This knowledge and experience relates to both matters affecting them as individuals and matters of wider concern to children as a group. Children should therefore be given room to contribute and participate in all matters that concerns them because decisions that are fully informed by children’s own perspectives will be more relevant, more effective and more sustainable.
Giving children a voice – or rather, letting them have their own voice – is a powerful tool with which to challenge situations of violence and abuse, injustice or discrimination. If adults are to fulfil their obligations to promote the best interests of children, they need to listen to children themselves. Adults do not always have sufficient insight into children’s lives to be able to make informed and effective decisions on legislation, policies and programmes designed for children. Working with and for children over the years has also made me realize how much children’s participation contributes to their personal development: through participation, children acquire skills, builds competence, extend aspirations and gain confidence. The more children participate, the more effective their contribution and greater the impact on their development.
A successful example of this was a recent child-led research project undertaken at the Challenging Heights School. Children themselves chose a research topic and coordinated the work themselves, culminating in presentations from pupils from class 6 to JH3. Children have been engaged in advocacy, social analysis, research, peer education, programme and project design and development and democratic participation in schools. Most importantly, a space for the children’s voice to be heard has been created, within the school and beyond.
At Challenging Heights, we try to ensure that children are given the opportunity to be heard on all matters affecting them, without discrimination on any grounds. From my own experience I am aware that a significant impediment to protecting children from violence and abuse is that many are denied the knowledge that they are entitled to such protection in the first place. That is why I first started the organisation with the creation of Child Rights Club (CRCs). Our clubs now provide for and encourage children’s participation in a variety of settings, including within the family, in schools and in their communities.
Finally, we should always remember that “the right to speak is the right to be heard”. Whoever we seek to help or claim to advocate for, ultimately it is the voices of the oppressed themselves that must be heard, for they know best what they need. Facilitating an understanding of their own rights, and raising them up so that they can speak for themselves, is what we should strive to do.