The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force in 1990, gives children the right to ‘express […] views freely’ in all matters affecting them (United Nations 1989: article 12.1).
Following this, the decade leading up to the 2002 UN General Assembly Special Session on Children saw an emerging emphasis on children’s participation as a key element of children’s rights (White 2002; Harper 2002). While children’s rights have been expanded to include a range of rights, children’s right to participation has increasingly become a central element in their social mobilisation. And as more spaces have been opened in policy processes for children’s participation, examining the challenges in how that participation can influence policy is key to understanding the complexities of realising rights in practice.
The increasing involvement of children and young people in policy processes related to childhood poverty needs to be situated within a broader context of participation in poverty reduction policy. Over the past couple of decades, participatory approaches to poverty reduction have become more common. This has been highlighted with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s 1999 introduction of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), a key step on the road to debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC). These papers have to be drawn up in consultation with civil society, and in particular the poor, on the basis that their involvement will producemore effective policies and increase the degree of country “ownership”. Echoing this, the 2000/2001 World Development Report, with its extensive Voices of the Poor survey, recognises that effective poverty reduction policy requires the input of those affected (World Bank 2000). Yet, while the value of adult participation in decision-making processes that affect them has long been debated, children’s right to participation has emerged as a more recent issue in policy and practice.
Children and young people’s participation has been defined as ‘an ongoing process of children’s active involvement in decision making (at different levels)in matters that concern them’(O’Kane 2004: 19). The majority of commentators focus on the processes of this participation, such as the empowerment however defined, of those children and young people involved. There is, however, an increasing need for children’s groups and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to justify their actions to funding bodies and those on whose behalf they claim to be acting and also to demonstrate what children and young people’s participation achieves in terms of the impact on the realisation of children’s rights. Is participation in policy processes one of the paths by which children will be more able to realise their rights? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to look at what kinds of policy outcomes this participation has had and what factors have constrained or enhanced their influence. To date, there is little evidence to indicate whether or not children and young people can effectively influence policy-makers (Kirby and Bryson 2002; McGuigan 2003).
In order to understand how children’s rights can be realised in practice, this article looks at the conditions and/or routes by which the participation of children and young people might be said to have influenced policy relating to childhood poverty. It draws on a case study concerning children’s mobilisation in India to track the change in outlook on the part of national and local authorities, from a perception of children and young people as passive recipients of services to a recognition of the value of their active participation (White 2002). Kirby and Bryson argue that ‘We know much more about how to support young people to express their views, than we do about how to ensure those views affect change’(Kirby and Bryson 2002: 63). Research into the influence of children and young people’s participation therefore represents a first step towards plugging the gap in existing knowledge, which will ensure that in future, children and young people’s participation can be designed in such a way that their policy influence is maximised.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Small Hands, Big Voices? Children’s Participation in Policy Change in India