by Shweta
Published on: Jun 27, 2006
Type: Opinions

What is Child Participation?

Participation is about having the opportunity to express a view effectively, influencing decision making and achieving change. Children’s participation involves informed, willing, appropriate and relevant involvement of all children, including the most vulnerable, in the decisions and actions that impact their lives either directly or indirectly. Participation is a core principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Article 12 of UNCRC places an obligation on governments to assure that the child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

The UNCRC provides the following general principles on participation:

• Children have rights to be listened to, to freely express their views on all matters that affect them, and to freedom of expression, thought, association and access to information.

• Measures should be put in place to encourage and facilitate their participation in accordance with their age and maturity.

• Participation should promote the best interest of the child and enhance the personal development of each child.

• All children have equal rights to participation without discrimination.

• All children have the right to be protected from manipulation, violence, abuse and exploitation.

Children’s participation with the rights based approach is a way of working. However, participation has to be meaningful. This involves transparency, honesty, and accountability. Meaningful child participation also requires promotion of safety and protection of children as well as a child-friendly and an enabling environment. Participation is both a means and a goal.

Child Participation: Why should it be a right?

Democracy presupposes not only equality but also the right to life and individual liberty. UDHR, UNCRC as well as Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of India state the rights essential for ensuring right to life and liberty, the development of every human being’s personality, and to preserve human dignity. Children are seen as rights holders and have the right to non discrimination, survival, development, participation, information, expression and association, the right to identity and nationality. Participation as a right has to be assured to children because:

• The right to participate is a basic human right. It is universal, inalienable and indivisible.

• Children want to participate.

•Participation benefits the children involved. It enhances self confidence, gives a sense of purpose and dignity, is an opportunity to learn and practice the skills of responsible and active citizenship, and increases possibility to protect themselves and challenge abuses of rights. This is essential for helping the child achieve his/her full potential. Hence, participation is essential to ensuring the Right to Life and Liberty as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

• Programmes which involve children’s participation are likely to be more appropriate, relevant, sustainable and responsive to needs of children and young people. The effectiveness of interventions is enhanced when children contribute to the analysis of what will serve their best interest. Participation can provide new perspectives on issues that are relevant to children as well as lead to better decisions based on children’s own experience and knowledge.

• Participation empowers children as members of civil society and as active responsible citizens. Through participation, children can exercise their responsibilities and strengthen their ability to hold the duty-bearers (government, organisations, institutions, others) accountable. This can increase awareness about children and young people’s issues; inclusion of children’s issues in the social, economic and political agendas; and ultimately lead to good governance. Hence, participation is also an evident outcome as well as prerequisite for the Directive Principles of State Policy.

The child, rather than being seen as the recipient of protection and assistance, has to be regarded as a person with rights who is able to express opinions, participate in decision making and influence the creation of solutions to problems.

Child Participation: The current processes

Most children in this world are denied both legal capacity and autonomy. At the same time, children’s participation has existed in cultures in different ways, even though this is not always recognised. Children participate in many ways, informally, in family and community life, such as at home, school, informal play, etc. Participation is one of the significant rights described in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the adoption of UNCRC, many organisations across the world have taken steps to enhance participation of children and young people through various strategies.

According to a study carried out for Save the Children (Tolfree 1998), the following three strategies were adopted for child participation:

• Consultation - activities focused on seeking children’s views and allowing them a voice in actions affecting them

•Organisation - activities whereby children organise events or actions, including cultural events and their own organisations and associations

• Protagonism - activities in which children act as advocates on their own behalf or take on a proactive development role, imparting and receiving information.

Initially, child participation usually happens though consultation, with organisational and protagonist activities more strongly afterwards.
[SCUK OVC Participation Report, August 2004] Children’s participation occurs in a deliberate and structured manner through:

i) Events held at local, national, regional and international levels in which children are encouraged to voice their concerns

ii) ‘Children’s parliaments’, either at local or national level

iii) Participatory research undertaken in direct relation to agency programming of policy development/review

iv) Community/school projects in which children work with adults

v) Child-led initiatives such as clubs, awareness raising groups or associations (e.g. child workers or street children)

The quality of participation work, however, has been variable. In India, there are models like Bal Panchayat, Children’s Bank, Participation model focused on HIV/AIDS. However, successful models are rare and there is a need to standardize the “what” and "how" of the processes.

Rights’ violation in participation

Every child has a right to participate in the decisions that impact his/her life. Yet, voices of children are not heard. Often, they are considered incapable of exercising any choices concerning their life and even if their participation is sought, it is usually done in a tokenistic, exploitative, and manipulative manner. In many activities, it might seem that children and young people are actively participating but in reality they may not be. Their participation is usually more of an add-on entity. It is seen very often that children are used to advocate - less for their rights and more for fulfilling the agenda of various organisations. They are involved simply because that is expected as an activity in a project. Children actually do not get the space where they could influence decisions.

The developmental needs of children are either not understood, or overlooked. Many times, adults assume that they know all the needs of children and therefore, can decide what is best for them. Such a scenario begin at home, where children’s views are often not listened to. This is also true of almost all the homes for children run by government-and NGOs.

“What is a right?” is understood by each adult in a different manner. For many children, the right to be treated with equal respect and dignity is violated. Children are labelled, abused and discriminated against. All this, unfortunately, also happens in the processes which are supposed to provide care and protection to children. Even this role of “providing” is abused more as a “power” where an adult decides what a child should or should not get.

“Care” is also many times limited to providing food, shelter and education, if possible. Adults invariably hold more social power than children. The most extreme consequences of this power relation are many kinds of abuse, neglect and maltreatment encountered by vulnerable children. Rights are violated even by those who consider themselves to be the most rights-oriented. Violation is to the extent that the incidents of abuse in one’s own organisation are buried and not reported. The need to protect the image of an organisation more often than not surpasses that need to ensure the rights of a child. What is in the “Best Interest” of the child is often debated upon as everybody struggles for a right answer to this.

In such a scenario, it becomes inevitable that “what is rights based participation?” is not only understood but also practiced. This obviously leads us to the “how” of the participation. If what is happening right now is not rights based participation then how do we reach the goal of rights based programming and participation?

Mental Health Impact of Non Participation

When a child is not given any opportunity to participate in decisions which impact her directly or indirectly, it affects not only her decision-making capacity but also her sense of dignity and control. Any event which overlooks or dismisses the views of a child has a potential of harming a child’s right and becoming an abusive experience. An environment where a child is only seen as a recipient and dependent, has the risk of giving power only to adults. Such power can be abused and may lead to exploitation of children.

Any child who grows up facing abusive, exploitative and excluding experiences is likely to have a shattered sense of identity. Every new experience has a risk of being perceived as abusive. Such a child often lives with the feelings of anger, hurt, guilt, and mistrust. The child facing adversity may also go through an acceleration of the developmental cycle, a foreshortened view of future, trauma, disillusionment, lack of attachments and depression. The child may live with the thoughts of:

• Life is unfair

• If I trust, I will be hurt

• Nothing is in my control, give up

• What is in the future?

• Why me?

• Nobody likes me

• I am not important to anybody

• My problems are routine and less important. I have to survived today. It does not matter what will happen tomorrow. Who has seen tomorrow?

• “I must have done something wrong to be hurt and punished like this”

These ways of thinking impact a person throughout his/her life and may come in the way of his/her development.

So what will Participation do?

• Facilitate social, cultural, and economic change by influencing attitudes and power structures in society. This is to make the society more inclusive, rights based and enabling.

• Fulfil the Fundamental Rights - especially, Right to Equality, Right to Freedom including Right to live with dignity (derived from the Right to Life and Personal liberty), Right against exploitation, and the Right to Constitutional Remedies.

• Increase the quality of life of children and young people to help them achieve their full potential

• To facilitate Good Governance Practices

• To make the policies and programmes more relevant and responsive to the needs of children and young people

• To make the programs for children more sustainable


With the current scenario and the need to evolve models of child participation based on mental health impact on children, it is necessary that the guiding principles be framed. It is very important that India awakens to the fact that we too need to develop Quality Standards on many processes. The goals of participation need to be understood by all in a common manner. We need to find a common platform rather than each of us thinking that "I know the best!" Let us remember that participation cannot be tokenistic. Let us remember that No Participation or Tokenistic Participation will come in the way of ensuring our fundamental rights. We all are the right holders, and we all are the duty bearers as well!

The articles/books/papers by Save the Children as well as by Saarthak have been consulted while developing this article. However, most of my article is based on the perspectives developed while working at Saarthak (India).

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