A child’s right to speak out: lessons from World Vision’s child participation models

Nov 18, 2020
By Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore

“To do something for a child, without that child, is to do it against that child,” Martine declared at a high-level virtual event with Canada’s minister of international development.

Here was an energetic 16-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), boldly speaking out on behalf of children and youth worldwide. And she had the uninterrupted atten-tion of some of Canada’s top development experts and decision-makers. It was an historic moment. 

A critical voice at the table 

The virtual roundtable was convened in May, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on education in the world’s toughest places. And, as a leading member of a child parliament supported by World Vision, Martine had a great deal to contribute. 

a young girl from Democratic Republic of Congo sits at a table and speaks. There is a name plate in front of her on the table and a series of documents.
16-year-old Martine speaks during a session of the child parliament in her community, where she acts as the Gender Commissioner. Photo: Brett Tarver

“We have seen that the education of girls is imperative,” she said, “because it allows them to increase their knowledge and live up to their potential. It also empowers them to help elimi-nate poverty in their communities.” 

Martine went on to emphasize the importance of inviting children to speak out, in local, national and global conversations about their well-being. 

“We would like children to be able to be allowed to express themselves, not always be represented by adults,” she said. “After all, as children, we do not abuse ourselves. Rather, if we are abused, it’s by our elders.” 

Silenced voices, trampled rights 

Too often, the people who are most impacted by systems of inequality and injustice are also among the least consulted in decisions affecting their lives. The resulting policies and programs are well-meaning but often ineffectual, overlooking realities on the ground and inadvertently perpetuating social injustice. 

For children living in conflict and poverty, especially girls, social injustice leads to the trampling of rights – including the right to an education. Even before COVID-19, girls living in places affected by conflict and disaster were 90 per cent more likely to be out of secondary school than girls in countries not affected by conflict. In the DRC, studies have also found a significant drop in school attendance as children get older, from a 43 per cent non-attendance rate in primary school, to 80 per cent in secondary.

Painful new directions 

Further disruptions caused by global pandemic responses are making matters worse, compounding the barriers that prevent girls and young women from realizing their full potential. 

A young girl from Sierra Leone stands in a doorway
A World Vision report predicts a sharp increase in violence against children and child marriage, as a result of COVID-19. At least four million more girls could be married in the next two years. Photo: Ian Winstanley

Girls living through the COVID-19 crisis also face an alarming risk of gender-based violence, unwanted pregnancy and child marriage. According to a recent World Vision global survey conducted to mark Universal Children’s Day, 81 per cent of children are reporting an increase in violence during the pandemic.

This is something Martine has witnessed in her own community, including with children she knows personally. 

“After schools in my community closed following the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the girls in my neighbourhood was taken by her parents to their rural home to help with farm chores,” says Martine. “Unfortunately, while there, she was abused by an adult in the area. I feel this was a consequence of closing schools.” 

Violence can move a child’s life in a painful new direction, with devastating consequences that are with them for a lifetime.   

Now, more than ever, the voices of children and youth like Martine, especially the most marginalized, must be sought and included in not just COVID-19 responses, but also in the design and implementation of all humanitarian and development programs. 

Why children make powerful advocates 

Inviting young people to the conversation benefits all of us. Child participation is a right protected in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and works to fulfil other child rights. Yet all too often, we presume that adults can do a better job of making decisions for children. 

There’s a common misconception that children lack capacity or knowledge to competently participate in the decisions that affect them. But participation serves as a virtuous cycle: the more opportunities children are offered, the more skilled and informed they become.

a Ugandan girl speaks in front a a group of children in a classroomIn a school hall in Uganda, children’s voices are not just being heard – they are being empowered through a Children’s Parliament, to report child protection concerns and get action from authorities. Photo: Nick Ralph

Initiatives that empower children, like child parliaments, become a positive path to their participation in broader community decision-making. Here’s what happens when stakeholders adopt a participatory approach to mobilizing and equitably including children’s voices: 
  • Child participation shifts the narrative, so children are no longer perceived as objects to protect but agents of change who are champions for children’s rights. In fragile and emergency contexts like the DRC, this focus on child-rights interventions can lead to decreases in child marriages and gender-based violence while increasing education rates for girls.
  • Children are empowered by an enabling, supportive environment that allows them to meet and share their views. Child participation forums can be inclusive, encourage diversity and removing barriers to participation. Democratic and respectful environments provide opportunities for those who are often denied a chance to speak, particularly girls. 
  • Children improve programs and policies because they are experts about their own lives, needs and experiences. Children possess knowledge from their unique lived experience that may not be understood by the adult decision-makers in their lives. 
By serving as a liaison among policy makers, local partners and community members, children can influence policies, practices and attitudes and spark transformative solutions that change communities and countries. 

Rising to the challenge 

In Martine’s home country, the DRC, millions of children and youth are forced to contend with a series of overlapping threats. These include conflict, violence and health risks exacerbated by a perpetual cycle of poverty.

Thankfully, alongside other global leaders, Canadian humanitarian and policy makers have recognized these complex needs and risen to the challenge of addressing them. 

Through the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, the Government of Canada rallied global commitments to help educate girls in crises. They followed through with a series of new grants to assist people living in fragile contexts. 

The EGAL grant 

The Equality for Girls Access to Learning (EGAL) grant is one key example. Beginning in 2020, the three-year project in the DRC is led by World Vision Canada. It focuses on increasing access to safe, inclusive, quality education for the most vulnerable children, especially girls.

Still in its early stages – and facing challenges related to COVID-19 – EGAL invites girls and young women in conflict-affected and fragile contexts to fulfill their rights to both education and participation in decision-making processes. 

Amongst other activities in the EGAL project, World Vision sets out to create leadership clubs where girls of secondary school age can:
  • review community action plans
  • learn about civil participation
  • access platforms to disseminate life-changing information with their peers. 
The objectives of the EGAL grant are promising. We know that when girls and boys develop the skills to become advocates in their communities, they’re better able to hold to account their local and national institutions. This allows for the more fulsome realization of children’s rights. 

Fighting back against COVID-19 

The complete, devastating impact that COVID-19 will make across the world is still not fully known. We know the pandemic has claimed the lives of more than a million people, disrupted education and livelihoods and placed tens of millions of people at risk of extreme poverty and gender-based violence. 

The time to intervene is now – not once COVID is under control. This is a critical time to rebuild with stronger systems that reinforce the rights and agency of the world’s most vulnerable children. 

Concerted efforts to engage young people, especially girls, in the recovery decisions that affect them offers a unique opportunity to harness their under-represented expertise, insight and enthusiasm to solve global problems like COVID-19.  

Child parliaments in action 

That’s why programs like EGAL are so critical right now. Although still in its infancy, the initiative builds on World Vision’s ongoing global work to prioritize, listen to, equip and work alongside young change-makers like Martine.

Around the world, child parliaments have been a powerful way to galvanize and equip children, youth, parents and community leaders to take responsive and pro-active action for social change in their communities and countries.

Formed in 2011, child parliaments in the DRC have engaged thousands of children, youth, parents and community leaders on issues pertaining to access to quality education, child protection, child marriage and sexual reproductive health and rights. It teaches youth to harness activism, government engagement and social movements to challenge unfair policies, practices or attitudes affecting children and young people.

Martine’s life, Martine’s voice

Martine became involved with a child parliament in the DRC after becoming aware of the devastating impact of gender inequality firsthand. Today, Martine presses for change through her role as the Gender Commissioner of her local child parliament.

a young girl from Democratic Republic of Congo stands with her back to the camera.
As the Gender Commissioner of her local child parliament, Martine is speaking out for girls rights. Photo: Brett Tarver

“The child parliament has helped me so much,” says Martine. “It has equipped me with so many skills for my development as an advocate for children. I tell children in the community that women and girls have rights, and that these must be respected."

“We want to be able to stand before people and speak about our issues, and talk about our rights and dreams,” says Martine. “When girls realize that their rights are respected, I know that they will do their best to achieve all their dreams.”

Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore is World Vision Canada’s policy advisor with a focus on social inclusion. She co-authored World Vision’s Aftershocks report detailing the potential secondary impacts of COVID-19 on children’s education. Tiyahna is a strong advocate for human rights, equity and inclusion. She holds an MA in Public Policy, Administration and Law from York University and a BA in Political Science and Communications from the University of Ottawa.

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