INTERVIEW – November 19 2020

Children are the experts on their lives

Interview with Arianna Tripodi, Youth Participation Advisor, Youth & ICT4D and Gabriella Rask, Coordinator of the International Youth Coalition.

The participation of children and young people is a right. Nonetheless, it is often still considered an additional luxury, participation is limited to older children only or children and youth are invited as mostly passive listeners, who are not considered equal participants in debates affecting their lives. Gabriella Rask and Arianna Tripodi explain in this interview what child and youth participation should be like.

Why is it crucial to promote child and youth participation?

Arianna: Child and youth participation is a right guaranteed through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means that it is not some added luxury treat that children and young people ask for, but something very important when working with them. For this reason, meaningful participation of children and young people has to be implemented at all levels.

For organizations providing care and family support such as SOS Children’s Villages, it should therefore be a main component of the programmes. It substantially contributes to children and young people’s personal development, and empowerment and improves the quality of programmes.

What should genuine child and youth participation look like?

Gabriella: Children and young people should be empowered to participate from an early age. It is about providing the space for their participation and to express their views, according to their evolving capacities. This means that everything we do for children and young people should involve them. They are experts on their own lives.

Child and youth care professionals need to be aware that fostering child and youth participation is part of their role guiding children and young people. This means we also need to build the capacity of caregivers in this respect.

When children are empowered to voice their views from an early age, it enables adults to pick up earlier on things that might not be going well in their daily lives. Caregivers and others working with the children and young people have to find the balance between protection and their participation. Every young person’s needs are different. They should be asked what makes them feel good and safe.

Arianna: Child and youth participation starts within the family or the care setting, in the context of every-day routines and decisions. Such as what to have for dinner, what skill or language they want to learn and going to active participation at community level and international level, such as children and youth advocating for their rights with the state and local authorities.

It is not about children and young people getting what they want but more about power-sharing between children, young people and adults. This way, children learn to take ownership and are better equipped for their adult life.

Children and young people need to be provided with opportunities to become aware of their rights and build their skills to enable them to participate. There are of course cultural differences and norms but we need to challenge the general tendency to assume that children and young people are not capable of taking decisions.

What initiatives exist within SOS Children’s Villages to promote child and youth participation?

Arianna: A new Global Youth Participation guide, which will be released this year, provides the global frame for participation and its implementation steps. It aims to offer guidance to staff of SOS Children’s Villages on how to enable young people to participate within SOS Children’s Villages including in the areas of advocacy, the support of youth-led initiatives and in the programmes.

This year, we also launched a programme called Youth Power to promote youth-led initiatives and strengthen participation. Young people and youth workers from 18 countries attended the 5-day virtual programme, received trainings, presented their work and boosted their knowledge on youth-led initiatives and participation to drive the change for a better world.

Gabriella: The International Youth Coalition (IYC) started in 2015. It is a platform composed of 20 young participants from 10 countries. The aim is to strengthen youth participation at national and international levels, empower young people to share their views on various topics as well as exchange knowledge and experience with their peers-.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the IYC met in person, once per year for a full week, to receive training and meet each other. Currently, we are meeting regularly online, which is also working very well.

The young people discuss topics such as the range of suitable care options, youth participation, education and skills development, the skills care professionals should have, their preparation for independent life, and health and well-being, including mental health. They are also encouraged to develop their own solutions with support from peers and adults for issues they want to work on.

The group’s input is included in various projects. For instance, the young people’s consultations on how   technology can improve youth care and development led to key takeaways, including recognition for the need to remove barriers to access technology, increase awareness of opportunities when working with technology and that also staff should have training in online safeguarding.

How can this benefit children and young people individually, especially considering the situation of children living in alternative care and those at risk of losing parental care?

Arianna: The young people acquire leadership skills, build networks and engage in peer-to-peer exchange. The experience enables them to grow their communications skills, and they exchange knowledge, resources and ideas among each other.

Gabriella: We also see that their self-confidence and motivation improves. Through interactions with peers across the globe, young people are inspired by their peers to engage in various activities and skills development opportunities.

How should particularly children who grow up in alternative care or experienced challenges in their families be empowered to take part in decisions affecting their lives?

Gabriella: It starts the moment a child or young person enter our care programmes, regardless of their age. Care professionals have to be equipped to involve children in decision-making processes. This means to give space for dialogue and finding the best solution together.

Arianna: Child and youth participation is everyone’s responsibility, and it should happen in all spheres. It is not only the caregiver’s responsibility but also that of the programme lead and the organization itself. It is a cross cutting topic at all levels.

We have to see it as a partnership: we have to shift from working for children and young people to working with them and consult them as experts on their lives.