by Paul Stephenson.
‘It was really wonderful. No-one has ever done it like that before. Now we know what the good and the bad things are in our community and we decided on what we can do to make it better.’
This could be the response of an adult who for the first time has been included in a process of identifying community needs. The voice is full of hope and desire to make a change. Yet the words belong to Sreevalli, a 14 year old girl living in rural India. She had just finished a full day of participatory activities with other members of the children’s club in her village. The activities aimed to enable the children to identify and prioritise community needs and develop a plan of action to meet them. As a result of the process, the children developed ambitious plans to improve hygiene and waste disposal, to ask the authorities for more frequent and safer bus transport to school and to improve play facilities.
They also identified positive things in the community of which they were proud.
There are many millions of voices like Sreevalli’s around the world. Voices of working children, children on the street, children at school, disabled children, children at risk of abuse and exploitation, and orphaned children who head households. Many children take huge responsibilities, face great risks and contribute considerably to family income and survival, but their voices are rarely heard by the communities and agencies who seek to help them.
How often do organisations working for the benefit of children seriously ask for children’s opinions on the type of support that would most benefit them? Would enabling children’s voices to be heard when projects are planned increase their effectiveness? What other benefits could come out of involving children in the process of community development planning and action?
Many adults find it difficult to think of involving children in their work. In my discussions with people in different parts of the world, they share common fears about children’s participation:
- Parental or adult authority and guidance may be weakened.
- Children already have too much ‘power’ or rights and are disrespectful of elders.
- Child participation goes against the culture of many countries.
‘The child has the right to express an opinion and to have that opinion taken into account in any matter or procedure affecting the child’ UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 12
- Children’s childhood should be protected – participation will turn them into ‘little adults’.
- Children should be sheltered from adult responsibilities – already too many children work and carry burdens beyond their years.
The potential of children
Organisations commonly only consider what they and the community can do for children, rather than what children could do for their community. In community development projects, children are left out of any decision-making processes; mainly because adults feel that they know what is best for children; also because most programmes only provide help for adults. In addition children’s contribution to development goes largely unrecognised. Children are seen as providing a silent and obedient labour force.
However we read in the Bible of examples that clearly show the ability of children to take on responsibility and leadership. For example, Josiah the boy king led his people back to God (2 Kings 22:1-2), and David took the stand for Israel against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:29-33). Children’s voices were also heard. Eli listened carefully to Samuel after God chose to speak directly to him. Above all, Jesus welcomed children in a way that surprised adults.
Where children have been allowed to participate, their role has proved very valuable.
Children are characterised by their openness, enthusiasm, love, desire to learn and idealism. Recognising children’s qualities will increase their potential to become change agents in their home, school and community environments. There are many examples (eg: in the Child to Child process) of children teaching their brothers and sisters simple health messages, and even teaching their own parents how to read and write. Children’s movements in India and Peru have helped change government policy after children showed how strongly they felt about social issues and children’s rights. Children now head households in many communities around the world due to a number of factors, including war, natural disasters, AIDS and family breakdown.
When children have participated in the planning, work and evaluation of projects their role has proved very valuable. It is important that ways for allowing children’s voices to be heard are developed in negotiation with parents and the community. This process will also encourage children to learn through experience about the democratic process and their role as citizens.
What have we learned?
During the past two years, I have visited many different projects in which children play a key role in project activities. The example of Sreevalli points to some of the potential benefits:
- A concern for children can provide a catalyst for wider community action.
- Children may provide a unique insight into their community.
- Children can form associations, clubs and networks that encourage collective action, develop useful skills for life and build relationships.
- Children learn skills and responsibilities through effective participation.
- Action between children and adults in partnership builds trust and responsibility.
- Levels of corruption and discrimination against women and tribal groups are reduced in an activity when children are included.
Encourage the full participation of children Children can take part in projects at different levels and with various degrees of adult support. Their ages, abilities and cultural situations need to be considered. Participation needs to go beyond simply encouraging children to join in activities; they should take part in or initiate planning and decision making.
Establish their needs Include children’s views from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought. Try to understand children’s roles in the household and community, and what issues are relevant to them. Allow children to identify their own needs and interests, so development can begin with children’s capabilities and build on their strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses.
Plan and evaluate Use participatory methods to encourage children’s input into planning, monitoring and evaluating projects or activities so that necessary information can be gathered. Methods such as drawing and role play may be more successful than discussions. Consider the abilities of the children, how to help them feel confident, and how to protect them when sharing painful or difficult information.
Ethical issues Encouraging children’s participation in development is still a new idea. Many questions remain unanswered. Involving children in development activities raises ethical issues. In many countries, parents must give their agreement before outsiders can work with children. Both children and parents should understand the reasons for and effects of such involvement. Participation should not result in anyone taking advantage of them or place them in any danger.
Don’t be afraid! Adults may find it hard to begin working with children. Creating a relaxed situation, building good relationships, learning new ways of communicating with children and allowing children to make mistakes as part of the learning process – these can all present real challenges. But the results may enable children to develop vital skills which will provide the foundation for sustainable change in communities and wider society.
Paul Stephenson is Child Development Consultant at Tearfund with experience in Central America, East Africa, Eastern Europe and India.
His address is: Tearfund, 100 Church Road, Teddington, TW11 8QE, UK.