“Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the centre; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.
— Rebecca Solnit
Ours is a world run by adults with rules set by adults, but it’s today’s children who will inherit the consequences in years to come of adults’ political choices, despite having had no say in how those choices were made.
To equalise the playing field, calling for universal suffrage springs to mind, except there’s nothing universal about it because, being about adult citizens only, it excludes all children — almost a third of the world’s population — from the equation.
Youth suffrage, on the other hand, does exactly what it describes, but it faces a wall of resistance. No country in the world allows under-16s to vote in national elections, and only a minority allow suffrage to children aged between 16 and 18 at national or municipal levels. Defenders of this status quo might claim that all children are too young to vote or don’t understand politics, but it goes deeper than that, as one journalist intuitively wrote: “more power for children means less power for adults”.
The current situation not only makes voting an adults-only club, but it reveals such a disregard for children and young people and what they have to say, that even adults who only have a few years left to live have more of a say on shaping the world of tomorrow than the children and young people who will outlive them. The truth is, this preference given to adults in today’s societies exists because it was devised by adults to suit adults. And children can do nothing about it because they’re not legally entitled to challenge the conditions that exclude them from decision-making in the first place.
But, rather than fall back into the common notion that children should be seen and not heard, let’s ask some inconvenient questions first, in the hope that they’ll get us to thinking differently about an injustice that’s gone on long enough. After all, if adults really know what’s best, then the answers should be obvious.
What affects us all
As with all human rights questions, let’s begin with what human rights law says on the issue. Under binding international law on children’s rights, children have a right to freedom of expression, just like anyone else, meaning they can express their opinions on absolutely anything. But on account of their young age — and the general assumption that children are less capable than adults of making decisions or formulating views — the chances that their opinions will be taken seriously are low. Because of this, children have an additional right to an opinion (also known as the right to be heard) and, relative to their age and maturity, for it to be taken into account in all matters or procedures which affect them. The intention with this right is to give children greater control and agency as their capacity develops to make their own decisions.
One contentious point with this right, however, is what is actually deemed to ‘affect’ children. Things such as custody disputes or being represented in court are some obvious examples. But what about matters or procedures which aren’t commonly thought to ‘affect’ children, yet which undeniably do? Sex education curricula affect what children know, learn and practice when it comes to sexual health, relationships and consent; the lawfulness of corporal punishment affects children’s protection from being hit by grown-ups; the minimum age to vote affects whether children have any stake in shaping their society; statutes of limitations on sexual abuse complaints affect whether childhood victims can access justice; and even the issues children’s rights NGOs work on can affect how children are viewed and treated.
It’s obvious many more issues affect children than we think, but their views are never called upon, at least not systematically, and definitely not on broader issues. Do environmental or climate change policies not concern children who are living on this planet just as adults are? Do questions within health policy such as privacy or consent or access to information not concern children who access the same services that adults do? And what about electing political representatives to act in the interests of their constituents — should only adult citizens be represented?
We shouldn’t think that just because something doesn’t affect only children that it doesn’t affect them at all. On the contrary, if it concerns us as humans, then it concerns us all, including children.
How much do children’s views weigh?
This isn’t an abstract question. It’s not a literal one either, as we’ve never seen a recipe for decision-making assigning units of weight to children’s views — let alone anyone’s views. The idea comes from children’s rights law which prescribes giving “due weight” to children’s views. This, as discussed earlier, should be done in accordance with a child’s age and maturity. But whether and how much consideration is paid to a child’s opinion depends on who’s measuring their maturity and who decides to give it the weight it’s apparently due, if any.
Unsurprisingly, this key children’s rights matter is once again completely in adults’ hands. And as that’s that case, two questions naturally emerge. How do adults frame children’s right to be heard? And are they doing it justice? These points are important because how we frame this right affects how we understand and perceive it, and ultimately determines the acknowledgement — and respect — we give to it.
What’s probably most telling here, is how we describe the right to be heard in the first place. It goes without saying that words matter: we call things by their name so we know what we’re talking about and so others can understand. But in a world where human rights already come with established names — such as the right to be heard, freedom of expression and association, the right to peaceful protest, or even citizenship — it’s not clear why discussions about children’s rights to these things aren’t described as such, but instead carry a different label. This is the case with participation — a favourite in the children’s rights arena. But what does it mean? And, crucially, does it do justice to children’s rights?
To introduce the word better, let’s start at the United Nations where its top children’s rights body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, reflected on children’s right to be heard in one of its general comments — a periodic analysis of specific children’s rights. In its report, references to voting rights, political rights or suffrage came up zero times; civil rights appeared once; citizenship also appeared once (albeit with regard to the citizenship children will exercise in the future as adults, not as children); meanwhile participation was mentioned 50 times. This word is therefore either really important or just really safe.
Through a single-word analysis, participation doesn’t mean much beyond the action itself of taking part in something, be it a game, a debate, a vote, or the drafting of a policy. Yet it’s a word the human rights sector has imbued with meaning. The concept of participation, although not being a right in itself, refers to the process of adults involving children in activities that, in theory, are influenced by children’s views, which adults then take into account when making a decision about something. In its defence, participation doesn’t claim to do anything more than the above. However, how it’s used depends on us, and in practice it’s used to mean more than it does, often conveying claims of empowerment for children where there is none.
Among NGOs, for example, when children’s rights projects are advertised as having featured children’s participation, it masks the fact that it was adults who picked the work and then consulted children about it, not the other way around. The main problem here is that children aren’t factored into the decision-making. Even though they might be involved in some capacity, it doesn’t make them partners in any decision-making about content or direction or anything else.
This status quo is reinforced by how the human rights sector continues to operate. Rather than redesigning the way children are involved in work on children’s rights issues in order to give them a greater stake in the process, the sector simply replicates how things are currently done, that is, in symbolic, tokenistic and decorative ways, which see the children involved unaware of or confused about how their presence adds value to a given project, and offers no assurance — or indeed any indication — that anything will come of their ‘participation’.
Once again we see that children’s so-called participation is not children’s at all, but has been usurped by those claiming to act in children’s interests. That children are even allowed to participate in things depends exclusively on opportunity, invite or approval by adults. And whether the views of participating children are even given “due weight” depends on the weight adults choose to give them, if any.
The situation reveals a stark realisation: having an opinion and a right to an opinion is one thing, but having influence and wielding it is something else entirely. As a result — and to answer our earlier question — children’s views are as light as a feather.
From participation to something better
This discussion raises a simple question about terminology: if we’re talking about respecting children’s right to be heard and empowering children through their so-called participation, shouldn’t we use more empowering words?
Again, this is a question about the labels we use, and how they frame children’s rights and influence our perception of them — and of children. And it’s one that extends across the human rights sector, which largely represents children’s rights in terms of protecting children rather advocating for their rights. But this paternalistic approach does nothing to change the status quo for the better.
As we’ve seen, participation in practice is nothing more than a buffer for or distraction from children’s actual civil and political rights. Let’s not forget the plain truth that children have no say in the conditions designed to give them a say or designed to restrict it, or who gets to act on their behalf and [mis]represent them. But this needs to change, not least because it seems children and young people actually don’t trust us. According to a number of youth surveys, the issues that children and young people are most concerned about include feeling disenfranchised and distrust in adults and world leaders to make good decisions for them.
So let’s start calling for what children actually need in order to be more empowered and able to represent themselves — and let’s call it by its name. Participation is not it; it’s not even close. It’s not even something that’s set out in law. But the right to be heard, to vote, and freedom of thought, expression and association are. And these can all neatly be summarised under one term.
The word is citizenship.
This article originally featured in the magazine What Lies Beneath, which is free to download here: http://home.crin.org/s/What-Lies-Beneath-Silence.pdf