Children should be heard

President Jacob Zuma ended the Cabinet lekgotla last month by calling on government leadership to play an active role in public-participation programmes and to “be a government that knows where people live and which responds timeously and in a caring manner to their concerns”. Public participation is enshrined in the Constitution and is at the heart of our democracy. It is the right of every citizen—including children.

Children are citizens and their concerns should be heard.
But children say adults ignore them. Children are clear about why sharing in decision-making is important for their wellbeing and for their future as citizens of the country. In a Childline publication children are quoted as saying that their rights count for nothing if nobody listens. And they are eager to enlist adult support in all spheres to tackle issues that threaten them.

The South African Child Gauge 2010-2011, launched on August 1 by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, describes local initiatives that enable children’s participation in decision-making. It shows how such participation can enhance children’s development, improve services and build a healthier democracy. Whether it be in hospitals, schools or in policymaking, evidence shows that children can and must play a constructive part in development.

As a country, we need to ask: If inviting children to participate in decision-making has such positive results, why aren’t we better at it?

A possible reason is that adults don’t know how to engage children and treat them as informed, intelligent and potentially powerful actors in their own lives. We’ve simply had no practice. Another reason, less easy to admit, is that we are unwilling to hear what children have to say. We don’t want to hear how we have failed them as individuals and as a society. Something about children’s perceptions of why things are not working unnerves us. We’d rather not know.

Our logic goes something like this: “Having brought children into the world, adults have the responsibility to safeguard their wellbeing. Because children are young and inexperienced, they depend on adults for food, shelter, nurturing and guidance. It is up to us to fix everything.”

We don’t believe that they have the ability and insight to help resolve the challenges in our homes, schools and communities.

But how do children see it? Is improving their quality of life an adult responsibility or is it a shared responsibility? Children do not blame adults for the problems they face. But they lack the power to do anything about social ills unless and until adults treat them as partners. For many, giving children rights feels like opening the flood gates. Children, it is feared, will demand privileges that undermine adult authority. More rights for children means less for adults. Or does it?

Advocates of children’s rights do little to ease the deadlock if they overlook the responsibilities of children. We too easily forget that children already play an active role in sustaining communities: caring for sick relatives, helping to farm or working in small businesses and maintaining links between scattered family members. Thinking about children as participants in decisions can move us forward.

Can adults’ rights be fulfilled with those of children? Yes, if we are prepared to rethink the relationship between adults and children from oppositional to collaborative, from “protector-protected” to something more reciprocal. This entails what has been called a “head change and a heart change”.

There are many tools that can be used to create this shift. For example, children’s participation in making radio programmes in KwaZulu-Natal has created the space for rural children to ask questions and find answers in their communities. It has opened channels of communication with adults through which mutual trust, respect and responsibility can be fostered.

To realise the president’s call to be a government that knows and responds to its people’s concerns, it is important that all citizens—children and adults alike—experience genuine participation. Their voices should be heard, should carry weight and direct the agenda for change, growth and prosperity.

Children are willing to get stuck in. Are we adults willing to join them?

Rachel Bray, a children’s participation expert, Lucy Jamieson of the Children’s Institute and André Viviers of Unicef South Africa are the editors of the South African Child Gauge 2010/2011, which can be downloaded at

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