“Children’s participation is a process of recognising human dignity. ” - Gerison Lansdown
Gerison Lansdown was the founder director, 1992-2000, of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, and, over the past 16 years, has worked as an international children’s rights consultant and advocate publishing and lecturing widely on the subject of children’s rights. She was actively involved in the negotiations for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and has produced a number of publications of the rights of children with disabilities. She is co-director of Child Rights Education for Professionals, a senior associate of the International Institute for Child Rights and Development in Victoria, was for nine years Vice Chair of UNICEF-UK and is on the editorial advisory board of the Canadian Journal of Children’s Rights.
Gerison is Chair of Child to Child, a member of Eurochild; she is chair of the steering committee of CATS (Children as Actors in Transforming Societies) and co-chair of the Eurochild Participation Reference Group. We met up with her just after her meeting with the Children’s Advisory Group to develop participatory approaches for the Eurochild Conference ‘Child Rights Matter: Why Europe needs to invest in children’ taking place on 5-7 July in Brussels.
1. What’s been the most positive development in progressing the right of children to participate?
Article 12 in the UNCRC – right of children to be listened to and taken seriously was seen as the most radical aspect of the Convention. It suddenly transformed the perception of children from passive recipients of protection to being agents with recognition of active capacity, skills and perception and expertise in their own lives. The General Comment on Article 12 provided a definitive interpretation which recognised how broadly states, NGOs, professionals, parents needed to take this principle. We’ve been on a journey for the last 26 years in changing attitudes towards children and we have made progress. But we have a long way to go.
2. What does child participation mean and why is it so crucial? How do you respond to criticism that children do not always know what is best for them?
Children’s participation is a process of recognising human dignity. All of us, whatever age we are, are entitled to having our views heard. It’s about creating spaces, giving children info, respecting their right to be heard and listened to, giving serious consideration to their views, having the responsibility of feeding back to children.
Article 12 isn’t about granting children autonomy. When people are making decisions, whether it’s the court, doctors, teachers, parents, local authorities, governments - decisions that affect their lives of children, they should build into those processes space and time to ensure they hear what children say. The decision that’s then made will necessarily have to take account of other views, but part of the decision needs to recognise that children have a contribution to make. There are many examples where we can show the added value of children having been listened to.
We have now witnessed, in the Catholic Church, in residential institutions, in families, all across the world, when children are systematically silenced, and they don’t feel safe to say anything, it’s possible to abuse them with impunity. Only by giving children a voice, and to know what their rights are, will you begin to end impunity. Children have less years of experience but they do have experience of their lives and that needs to be listened to.
3. What are the limitations of children’s participation?
There are barriers of attitudes, resources. Children have limited time, they have school, homework and many activities. Any kind of initiative needs to recognise these parameters. Working within these parameters you can do amazing things. For instance, Rights respecting schools led by UNICEF UK is a great initiative – children’s rights reflect the whole philosophy around how the school is run. Children are involved as peer counsellors, some are involved in recruiting teachers, and some of them sit on the board of governors. Children are a resource together with teachers in building a positive learning environment.
We can go more in depth in creating a participatory environment. At the same time, adults are responsible for children. Participation is a right, not a duty. It has to be voluntary. We have to keep in mind children’s right to free time and play as well and not to overburden them.
It’s important to recognise that even young children can be involved. We have seen democratic nurseries are possible. Most people do it instinctively, listening to the baby to understand their needs – whether its hunger or feeling cold. But maybe we stop doing it when children get older.
4. You are part of the Eurochild Participation Reference Group and are currently focusing on participation at the Eurochild Conference. What can be expected from this?
When people see young people engaged, it often switches on a ‘light bulb’. They begin to see the added value. I was at the Council of Europe conference in Sofia, Bulgaria earlier this month where the young people were the rapporteurs for each working group. I think people were generally amazed by how effective the rapporteurs were.
The Eurochild Conference where third of participants will be under 18 years, will be transforming because you’ve never done anything like that. Once you’ve got a critical mass, it changes the whole agenda.
In CATS (Children as Actors in Transforming Societies) which is the annual conference of children and adults in Switzerland, nearly half the participants are under 18 years. It creates opportunities for adults and children to genuinely learn together. It’s about transforming spaces, as partners, not just recipients. We would like to follow up to explore how it shifts agendas when they go home - in the way they talk, the way they think, and the way they act.
5. How do you see networks like Eurochild and their role in strengthening CYP participation?
The Eurochild conference this year will be a marker in the sand; the aim is to not go back. From here on, this is how a conference ought to be run. So you create a genuine space for young people to dialogue. Further on, we are exploring other ideas; how to establish an advisory group of children, to act as a sounding board, to respond to, for instance, EU laws under development. Having a sounding board of young people who can go back to their own countries and come up with ideas of issues of critical concern to them.
Similarly we talked about communications, young people could have an important contribution to the way you develop the brand, the messaging. And also in getting messages out, using digital media, they are very quick to use those mechanisms. Young people can work as a partner to the work of the network, help develop more child friendly documents. Recognizing it is a small team, progress in involving young people will need to be an incremental process, through trial and error, exploring where the benefits have most impact.
Do you want to involve children in your work?
Here are some resources to help you, as recommended by child participation expert Gerison Lansdown:
Child participation Assessment tool to help you advocate your governments to engage children: here
Child participation Monitoring and Evaluation tool – to monitor the work you do, as an NGO, or a school (Available in ENG, FR and ESP): here