COUNCIL OF EUROPE: Listen seriously to the views of children

Summary: The viewpoint below by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, was published on the 18th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been a remarkable success. It has not only been ratified by all countries of the world except the United States and Somalia, it has also acted as a catalyst for a series of concrete actions for real implementation of the agreed norms. However, much more needs to be done in several fields to grant children their full rights. One right which has not been ensured in reality is the right of children to have their views taken into account.

The importance of respecting children and their opinions was the main message of the Polish writer, doctor and educationalist, Janusz Korczak, whose teaching came to inspire the drafting of the UN Convention.

In an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, he, his colleagues and some 190 children practiced the rights of the child for real. In the midst of the horrible brutality outside, they developed a small democracy. They all formed an assembly for important decisions. They agreed upon rules of behaviour and a court was established to deal with offenders (in most cases the “sentence” was to apologize). There was a bill board for messages and a newspaper for news and discussion.

This experiment of child democracy came to a terrible end on 6 August 1942 when the German Nazi soldiers marched them all, staff and children, to a train which would bring them to the gas chamber in Treblinka.

Korczak’s example and writings have however not been forgotten. His books are still reprinted in different languages and are still influencing many. However, some of his ideas are still seen as either unrealistic or something for the future.

This seems to apply also the provision in the UN Convention about the views of children:

‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’

This provision is probably the least implemented aspect of the Convention. It seems not to be fully understood that this Article 12 places an obligation on governments to ensure that children’s views are sought and considered on all matters that affect their lives.

It is time to confront this challenge more concretely. Obviously, there is no clear vision of the content and implication of a child’s right to be heard and to participate in decision-making. Therefore, as a first step, goals and standards for the realization of this right need to be spelled out in more concrete and substantive terms.

Implementing this right requires long and short-term objectives and strategies to address social attitudes and behaviours, and to develop viable models for children and adolescents to participate in political and societal decision-making. Mechanisms need to be developed within political bodies that ensure systematic consultation with children and serious consideration of their views.

The objective should be to create a culture of greater receptivity to and respect for children’s views. Unfortunately many adults seem to consider this prospect a threat. The issue of children’s influence is seen as a ‘zero-sum gain’ – that is, a situation in which one side wins only if the other side loses. In other words, if children get more power, adults believe they will lose some of theirs and be less able to control the family, or uphold discipline in the classroom.

In some countries, adults have aggressively opposed children’s participation in the name of parents’ rights or religious principles. To change such entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards children may take some time.

How can this issue be raised in a meaningful way? How can it be shown that there is no contradiction between giving children the possibility of influencing their lives and society, on the one hand, and safeguarding the role of adults to care for, guide and protect children, on the other? How can it be made obvious that this is not a win-lose game, but that all sides stand to gain if adults learn to support children in the exercise of their rights?

Here are some suggested first steps:

1. Children’s primary arena is the home. Raising awareness among parents and caretakers about children’s right to be heard, and helping them cope with their parenting roles in this respect, must be a priority.

2. The other key arena is the school and kindergarten. Interactive learning, relevant curricula and democratic attitudes and procedures are essential contributions. Such measures should focus on strengthening children’s ability to express themselves, to handle democratic processes and to understand society and its problems better. A huge task ahead is capacity-building among teachers and school staff on how to listen to children, enhance dialogue and promote conflict resolution in a democratic manner.

3. Children’s organizations advocating for the realization of children’s rights could be promoted, and other NGOs working with or for children, such as sports clubs or charity groups, could be encouraged to listen to children and respect their views.

4. Political parties should be encouraged to develop their capacity to consider children’s views and enhance children’s influence in political affairs.

5. Television, radio and the press should have ‘child-friendly’ news presentations and make sure that children’s views are presented on matters of special concern to them. More child-focused correspondents and young journalists should be welcomed.

6. Steps should be taken to make the justice system child-friendly. The court procedures must be adjusted the meet the needs of children, be they perpetrators, victims or witnesses. Children should have an influence on administrative or judicial decisions relating to themselves, for instance on custody care and adoption.

7. Governments should define issues which have great impact on children’s lives and on which they should therefore ought to have a say, for instance family policies, the planning of community facilities, school policies, children’s health care and recreation services. They should identify meaningful ways to take children’s views into account and ensure that they are representative and relevant. Channels of expression should be explored which are adequate to different age groups, including young children – such as dialogues with pre-schoolers, school councils, opinion polls, representatives and other models. Special measures should be taken to enhance the voice of groups of children with disabilities or other disadvantaged groups and explore how to overcome possible constraints.

These steps would be in line with the vision of Janusz Korczak. Enabling children to express themselves and have their views heard and respected in the home, in the school and in the community from an early age will enhance their sense of belonging - and readiness to take responsibility.

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe

Further information

  • Thomas Hammarberg: Children in migration deserve better protection (August 2007)
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