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AN ENERGETIC ALLIANCE
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In long-standing conflicts children often have a great deal to offer in terms of building bridges and developing peace. Amid the apparently intractable conflict in southern Sudan, for example, United Nations Children’s Fund’s programming has been influenced by the opinion of children. In November 1999, 37 children and adolescents, drawn from different ethnic groups all over southern Sudan, gathered for a conference in which they outlined a way forward based on achieving peace through education. Their vision has significantly influenced the subsequent development of the UNICEF programme in southern Sudan...

All the possible opportunities, benefits and pitfalls surrounding children and participation were at issue in the lead-up to the UN general assembly special session on children in May 2002...

In the run-up to the special session, the global movement for children brought together adults, adolescents and children; campaigners, counsellors and crusaders for child rights: those who cared about forging a world fit for children. While recognizing that children and adolescents cannot be expected to challenge the world’s misplaced priorities on their own, this energetic alliance embraced the idea that the job could not be done by adults without the passion and perspectives of children.

The primary focus of the global movement for children was a major worldwide campaign called “Say Yes for Children”, launched at events around the world beginning in March 2001. Adults and children alike were asked to say “Yes” to a pledge — “I believe that all children should be free to grow in health, peace and dignity” — and to support the global movement’s 10-point agenda for action. They were then asked to identify the three action priorities that they considered most important. The participation involved in a campaign of such a mass scale is bound to be limited. But this element of interactivity — whether over the Internet or on widely distributed paper forms — undoubtedly helped draw both children and adults into the process...

With the overwhelming number of pledges coming from children, the three issues identified as most urgent were education, discrimination and poverty...

The “Say Yes for Children” campaign allowed an arc of participation for millions of children and young people, who could trace a path from the pledge they made in their local communities to leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel, and from them to the UN general assembly special session on children, and on into the outcome document and a declaration by world governments...

The children’s impact at the special session extended far beyond the children’s forum itself. The presence and participation of children changed the style of the event, infusing proceedings with a directness, idealism and honesty that are too often absent from such international meetings. At press conferences and feedback meetings, child delegates explained their achievements and articulated their expectations with astonishing assurance — not to mention a freshness of approach that compared favourably with the often dry exchanges between adults elsewhere...

It is impossible to measure the positive overall impact of children’s participation at the special session — though its empowering, transformative effect on each child’s life is easy enough to imagine... One cannot but feel that only good can come from this intense interaction between children and the men and women with power to make a difference in the world...

There is no turning back to an era when children suffered in silence, when they waited on the world’s protection and charity. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has transformed the landscape irreversibly. Its 54 articles contain not only a clarity of thought and care of phrasing unusual in instruments of international law but also a rare wisdom of which the world should be justly proud. That it has been nearly universally accepted is a tribute in itself...

One of the broadest, most profound lessons of all is that children are capable of much more than is normally thought: at virtually every age from birth onwards children’s capacities are greater than previously imagined. Children will rise to meet the challenges in front of them. But for the millions of children caught up in armed conflict or condemned to a half-life of sexual slavery or hazardous labour, the challenges are far greater than any child should have to bear. The world must protect its children far better than it does at present, even as it opens the door to their participation.

And open the door it must. Not only because the children who walk through it will be better able to protect themselves, but also because we cannot design a world fit for children without carefully listening to what they have to say.

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