| Unique influence
Children and young people are virtually invisible in terms of public policy and of voices expressed on the national stage. Even in the healthiest democratic societies run in the service of voters’ interests, children tend to be marginalized — on the assumption that their parents will speak for them. Former president of the European parliament, Nicole Fontaine, has concluded: “The relative invisibility of children’s own unique experience and understanding from all the key legislative and policy-making forums has served to produce policies which discriminate against children. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of economic policy where the lack of active consideration of the situation of children has produced an unacceptable growth in child poverty across the European Union.”
One solution is the number of children’s parliaments, which are mushrooming, representing a positive response to the need to both listen to young voices and to foster democratic citizenship. Perhaps for the latter reason there is particular and encouraging enthusiasm for the parliaments in newly democratic nations...
In Albania, regional youth parliaments began as pilot projects in the prefectures of Shkodër and Gjirokastër in 2000, spread to four other areas in 2001 and by the end of 2002 will have covered 80 per cent of Albania. The parliaments are elected every two years and meet once a fortnight...
Inevitably, there are wide differences in the ways in which children’s parliaments are organized. None have law-making power that would take them beyond being a consultative process providing input to governments. None are directly elected by all children, though delegates sometimes emerge from the public school system and may have been elected by fellow students. In other examples, young people come together for a single day to discuss current issues without any preparation, training or follow-up.
But other children’s parliaments are more carefully established and organized. In Thailand, for example, more than 200 youth representatives, including children with disabilities, from schools in all 76 provinces, were brought together for three days to take part in the National Youth Parliament 2002. Through democratic and participatory processes, several issues were identified, shared and debated through passionate and active participation. When their report was presented to the Cabinet meeting...youth participation was adopted as a government policy.
There is one thread that weaves throughout youth parliaments, despite the differences across them and the varying extents to which they influence the politics of the moment: they all enhance child participation and introduce young people to the workings of a democratic government. In Georgia, for example, while the young people who took part in the children and youth parliament were successful in launching an anti-corruption movement and a series of television discussion programmes about the issues facing young Georgians, the most significant impact of the parliament was on individual participants.
Positive examples notwithstanding, there are some risks attached to young people’s participation, and children as well as adults need to be aware of them. In public meetings, children may be treated as window dressing, tokens of child participation; they may be treated as though they are representative of their peers when they are not; adolescents may be considered to speak for young children when they are in fact closer to adulthood. They may become part of a new elite through frequent participation in international meetings and lose the confidence of the groups that nominated them.
There are other, graver dangers. While political activism for adolescents in relatively stable countries might be a desirable step in learning the practices of democracy, in some social and political contexts encouraging children and adolescents to speak out may put them at increased risk of harm. Children should not be expected to play leading roles in confronting repressive public authorities; in societies where it is hazardous for their parents to speak their minds, children should not be tossed into the breach.
In some conflict situations children’s participation becomes increasingly important. Thinking of children as helpless victims dependent on adults in situations such as armed conflict is not necessarily the best way to help them to cope. Clearly, some children are deeply traumatized by their experiences and need specialist care. But it is important to recognize that children can usually contribute significantly to their own protection. In addition, children do not always experience adversity in the way that adults do — so that if their views are not actively sought and taken into account, well-intentioned actions can be inappropriate or even harmful.