Today, Universal Children’s Day, 20 November marks the anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the convention was established, 196 states have signed up to guarantee children’s rights. However, without listening to children about the issues that affect them, how can their rights be truly recognised?
What do children feel is important? What do they say when given the chance to speak their minds?
These are questions that we at Plan International are constantly asking ourselves. For us, children’s active participation in creating an equal world for themselves is crucial. When we talk about working for and with children, it’s not just a mantra.
This is why we involve young people in decision-making through Youth Advisory Panels and work with children around the world to help them advocate for their rights. We’ve also worked alongside partners to develop a toolkit to strengthen children’s participation in wider society.
Most recently, we talked with dozens of children on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in Geneva and heard their thoughts on why children’s rights were important and how to solve difficult global problems faced by children.
It was inspiring to see children as young as 5 or 6 thinking about how they would address issues like children not going to school, dying of preventable diseases, or gender inequality. Many expressed that “it’s not fair that so many boys get to go to school and not girls.” They emphasised that children have the right to express their opinions.
Children as powerful agents of change
People often feel comfortable talking about what we can do for children so they have access to their rights. Yet we are much less comfortable encouraging children to understand their rights and become participants in making them a reality. This is often harder for us adults because it requires us to let go of what we think is most important and actually listen.
We have seen time and again the power young people have when they are given the space to become agents of change. Look at Malala, the girl who, at 15, became one of the world’s most powerful spokespersons for girls’ education. And there are tens of thousands of others who never make it to the spotlight, but whose impact is just as strong.
Together with children for a better future
The Global Goals, also known as Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed on by the governments of the world in September, represent a commitment to creating a better world by 2030.
In the process to develop the goals, Plan International worked hard to ensure young people’s voices were taken into account. Now they’ve been adopted, it’s absolutely critical children have a seat at the table to figure out how we can make the goals a reality.
If national plans and strategies are to truly address their rights and needs, children must be able to have their say. Governments not only need to listen but also to respond to them.
This doesn’t just apply to developing policies, but also to the budgets that determine how much money will be spent on them. “A consultation method should be child-friendly. The government should also accept feedback”, said a girl who took part in a consultation process on budgeting for children’s rights. Many people will argue that children shouldn’t have anything to do with budgets, but we would say the opposite!
Plan International has done a lot of work with children and young people to hear their advice on what their governments should spend money on.
Don’t underestimate children
We must not underestimate children and the power they can have if we only listen to them. Even young children can begin to understand complicated global issues of inequality and injustice. The more children understand, the more they can take action and create real and lasting change for themselves.
So, on Universal Children’s Day, don’t shy away from talking with children about their rights and tough issues. You might just be surprised what they say.