Children for change
Children can make a difference when given the chance. But how far can this rarely-explored resource be tapped? Gihan Shahine sifts through this year's State of the World's Children report for answers
"If you think children can't make a difference,
you are very wrong.
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Children have ideas, insights and capabilities which, if unleashed, would enrich adult experience. But are we listening close enough?
Who else can describe all the world's harm if not children?"
--16-year-old Urska Koosec, Slovania.
Mohamed Salah is only 14, but he has been actively engaged in developing the village of Al-Halabiya in Beni Suef where he lives. He is a member of the Al-Halabiya Local Community Development (LCD), a non- governmental organisation (NGO), which is currently running a child-participation programme in cooperation with the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS). The programme started in May 2001 and teaches children between the ages of nine and 12 how to actively participate in problem solving within their own communities.
"Every three months we teach 60 children how to assert their own rights, find solutions to the problems of their communities, increase awareness among adult villagers, voice their problems and concerns and communicate them to officials," said LCD's Eid Hamed. "The young graduates then engage in peer- training to ensure sustainability of the programme. And the impact has been so great."
Al-Halabiya, like many villages, has a major refuse problem and many of the roads are unpaved. LCD's young members, however, decided they had had enough.
"The children distributed clean bins to every single household in the village and laid down a system for the safe disposal of refuse," Hamed told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Meanwhile, the children went on a door-to-door awareness campaign, explaining to adult villagers the health hazards associated with open rubbish dumps."
The youngsters of Al-Halabiya even went so far as to invite officials from the governorate to the organisation headquarters to petition them to pave the village roads which children use every day to walk to school.
"The officials did not respond initially, but finally complied with the children's demands," Eid enthused. "Now the roads are all paved and the children are developing self- esteem and self-confidence."
It is the effectiveness and novelty of this concept of child participation that urged the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to choose it as the main topic of this year's UN annual report The State of the World's Children 2003. The report was launched consecutively in all the 144 UN member states worldwide on 11 December -- only six months after world leaders pledged a commitment to "change the world" not only 'for' children, but 'with' their participation. The commitment was part of the "A world fit for children" declaration that all member states adopted at the closing of the UN General Assembly's Special Session on Children in May 2002, as part of their agenda to ensure children's rights.
In Egypt, the launch was organised in collaboration with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) and was hosted by Shahida Azfar, UNICEF Egypt representative, Mushira Khattab, head of the NCCM and Alieddin Helal, minister of Youth and Sports, as well as a number of NGOs and media representatives. The highlight of the launch was the children's forum, where 40 Egyptian children, randomly selected from different governorates, expressed their viewpoints regarding the status of women and children in Egypt. They also engaged in an open discussion with guests and members of the media.
The aim of child participation, as defined in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is to enable and encourage children and adolescents to actively engage in issues that affect their lives.
"In essence, it is about listening," UNICEF's Azfar explained. "One of the challenges to our generation is to listen 'for' and 'to' the views of children, in all the ways they might be articulated. It is about making sure children have the freedom to express themselves in an authentic and meaningful way."
Active child participation, says the report, is essential for ensuring their growth and development. The values of democracy -- such as respect for the rights and dignity of all people -- are best learned in childhood, so participation is likely to encourage children to begin assuming their responsibilities as active, tolerant and democratic citizens, the report states.
Meanwhile, failure to promote child participation from an early age means missing out on an amazing opportunity to enforce democracy and human dignity around the world, the report warns. This failure leaves young people with a sense of powerlessness and exclusion from society.
"As things stand today around the world, children and young people are barely visible in terms of public policy," Azfar stated. "Even in the healthiest democratic societies, far too often children find themselves pushed to the margins."
For which a price must be paid. A recent UNICEF survey shows that millions of children around the world feel disconnected from political institutions and lack trust in their governments. The survey was conducted on a base sample of 40,000 children in four continents, who mostly expressed doubts about the usefulness of voting as a method of improving their lives, and don't see government leaders as role models.
"This is a deeply worrying trend, and one that political leaders would do well to pay attention to," said David Bull, executive director of the UNICEF office in the UK. "When children are excluded from the decision-making process," Bull explained, "they fail to develop the ability to express themselves, negotiate differences, make responsible life choices, engage in positive dialogue or assume responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities."
"Can we then be surprised that the societies these children grow up in are themselves failing to engage in positive dialogue and constructive community work?" Bull asked.
The principle that children should be consulted about what affects them, however, often meets with resistance from those who see it as undermining adult authority within the family and society, the report says.
"But this is missing the point," Azfar argued. "Listening to the opinions of children," she explained, "does not mean simply endorsing all their views. Which does not suggest that children's views are not important in their own right either," Azfar added. "Children have proved that when they are involved, they can make a real difference; their ideas, experience, insights and dreams enrich adult understanding and make a positive contribution to adult actions."
The report mentions many cases in point. In India, for instance, there was an initiative where community children's groups worked in dialogue with landowners and factory- owners and successfully convinced them to release children from bonded labour.
But how can child participation be encouraged in Egypt?
"There are many striking examples here in Egypt," Azfar maintained. "Perhaps the best example is the community school initiative, where students learn creative and critical thinking, and participate in the management of classroom as well as community development activities."
The initiative was launched in 1992 in Upper Egypt by UNICEF in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, provincial governors, NGOs and local communities. Approximately 100,000 children, most of which are girls, are currently involved in the programme.
Schools should be the place where children acquire basic skills, learn about the world and find out about their rights and responsibilities as future citizens. According to the report, however, schools often enforce blind obedience, most teachers are involved in learning by rote and the teaching methods employed are teacher-oriented rather than child-oriented.
The initiative is part of the UNICEF campaign to employ teaching methods which maximise children's participation and encourage self-learning -- a concept unknown to most schools.
"The schools operate within the formal education system, but students choose the projects they want to work on, they take part in research, interviews and have their own magazine," Malak Zaalouk, chief of education at UNICEF Cairo, said about the initiative. "The children, learn through art, singing and games." They also learn the skills required for teaching both themselves and their peers.
"The students also participate in developmental projects by launching health and environmental campaigns," Zaalouk added. "The official curriculum is extended to include subjects and activities best suited to the interests of both the children and community, such as the environment, agriculture, and local history. And children have their own school backyard where they experiment with agriculture, planting seeds or picking fruit."
"So when students were polled on what they wanted to do in when they grew up, 91 per cent hoped that to get jobs involving community development," Zaalouk said. "Children generally have great impact if they can demand their rights."
This can be seen in relation to the attitude of girls to various traditions, a topic which has been mentioned in the 1999 issue of UNICEF's State of the World's Children report. Freiga, a 12-year-old girl in the Al-Kom community school, had been promised in marriage to the son of a relative. She managed to convince her parents to delay the marriage for two years until she finished her school education.
"In 1996, 2,000 children were selected to participate in a campaign against early marriage. The campaign took the form of theatre and puppet shows and was launched in Assiut, Sohag and Qena," Zaalouk said. "This child-to-child approach had a large impact; there has been a reduction in the incidence of early marriages in the targeted areas ever since."
Nagwa is a member of the local education committee at a community school. She donated her own and her sister's bedrooms to set up a school and now spends most of her time visiting families to convince them that education is the best solution for their children. And Nassreya, a young woman in the Saad Abu-Gayed literacy class, was encouraged to learn to read and write by her young daughter who attends a community school. According to the 1999 report, many parents like Nassreya have learnt to write a few basic words, including their name, from their daughters and sons.
Community schools aside, Zaalouk insists that, in Egypt -- a culture which has "a big heart for children" -- child participation in the community is on the increase. The NCCM and NGO Coalition on Children's Rights, for instance, included the views of children in their review of the Achievements of the Decade of the Egyptian Child, and in last year's Pan African Forum children shared their views with participants which included 18 First Ladies -- wives of Arab leaders.
The situation, however, still needs to be improved. According to the UNICEF report The Situation of Egyptian Children and Women, the harsh living conditions of many Egyptian children prevents them from actively participating in the community.
According to the report, almost one Egyptian child in three is anaemic; some four million children aged between seven and 18 do not attend school and between 12 and 15 per cent of children aged between six and 14 years are part of the workforce, some of whom work in exceptionally harsh conditions. A national study of scholastic achievement suggests a low percentage of children have achieved basic literacy and numeracy; excessive pollution poses a direct threat to children's health and nationally, 19 per cent of under fives suffer from "stunted" growth.
The challenge, however, is global. According to UNICEF, 150 million children suffer from malnutrition; 120 million school-aged children -- mainly girls -- do not attend school and 6,000 children and young people become infected with HIV every day.
And so, the report points out, "it is not if children participate, but how they participate that is a critical issue now, when so many millions of children are hungry, diseased or exploited." Children need information, support and favourable conditions in order to participate effectively.
But a radical shift in adult thinking is also needed if this is ever to happen. According to Hamed of the LCD, when children went on the refuse campaign, the adults in the village barely took any notice "until the children brought them the new bins and managed to get officials to pave the roads".
"We have a male-dominated culture where children, especially girls in the countryside, are not even accounted for," Hamed said. "Adults often think they know best and many parents insist they must decide for their children."
"The journey from where we are today towards a world where children's opinions are routinely sought won't be easy," Azfar conceded. "Everyone involved -- children, adults, families, governments, communities and institutions -- will have to acquire new skills, and new attitudes."