Published on December 17, 2014

Celebrating twenty-five years: a child’s right to participate

By Emily Graham

Emily is Project Coordinator at Involve. Working primarily on NHS Citizen, Emily is committed to the importance of people’s participation in building a transparent, accountable and more inclusive democracy.

5045502202_41476791a4_oIn 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by governments – this year, as we celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday, it is the most widely ratified human rights treaty (all governments, except Somalia, South Sudan and the United States, have signed up).

The CRC enshrines the right of participation for children. Sometimes described as a “child’s right to be heard”, article 12 of the CRC enshrines the right of the child to have their views heard in all matters affecting them, and for these to be taken seriously.

The CRC is the main, but not only, treaty that protects the rights of children (that is, all those under 18), and UNICEF describes how it “changed the way children are viewed and treated”. It marked a recognition that children, as human beings, are rights-holders and active citizens – and not for the future, but in the present.

In light of this, participation is a guiding principle of the CRC – crucial to implementing children’s rights in practice. Child Rights International Network (CRIN) describes this as a “unique right” – one of a few that is set out in the CRC that isn’t provided for in the three central human rights treaties (UDHR, ICCPRICESCR). Children have a few “unique rights” because they need different forms of protection during childhood. This isn’t to say that adults don’t have the right to participate in political processes and to be heard in decisions that affect them – but that children are often particularly excluded from decision-making. Different issues also apply to children than to adults, for instance the way that children participate depends on their age and maturity – you can read more about the specifics of the child’s right to be heard here.

In essence, though, this means that governments who sign up to the CRC must listen to and take seriously the views of children when it makes decisions that affect them – for example family life, like in cases of parental custody, or in schools, particularly in terms of governance. Beyond the family and schools, it also means that governments should take into account the views of children when it makes other decisions, including in policy-making.

This was recognised by the UK Government in relation to health, when they pledged: “Children, Young People and their families will be at the heart of decision-making with the health outcomes that matter most to them taking priority” – and the NHS was then challenged by the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, who reported on the lack of coherent inclusion of children and young people in decision-making about NHS provision. You can read about the responses to this and NHS England’s commitment to engage children and young people in Olivia Butterworth’s blog post, “Children and young people 22% of the population yet all of our future”.

In committing to listening to children better and enabling more meaningful participation, the UK government is working towards meeting its international obligations – it signed up to the CRC in the early 1990s. Since then, government policies and practices must comply with the provisions of the CRC, including the child’s right to be heard. The UK reports on its progress to the Committee on the Rights of the Child every five years – you can find the recent reports from 2010 and 2014 here, including examples of youth participation that the UK government considers to be good practice (mostly Youth Parliaments).

Reporting on progress every five years is a useful and necessary process in ensuring that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. However, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the CRC is a special moment for learning and reflection. World Vision marks the anniversary of the CRC by celebrating promising signs that children’s voices are beginning to be heard in the corridors of power at New York and in Geneva. Child to Child have also used this opportunity to stop and reflect, but conclude that that too little progress had been made in terms of children’s right to participate.  As this year draws to an end, what signs can we see here in the UK? Do children have the right to be heard and are they really being listened to?


Photo credit: “Birthday cake″ by Will Clayton, Creative Commons, see the image on flickr 

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