The right to participation
Several provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child reflect children's right to participation. Participation is one of the guiding principles of the Convention, as well as one of its basic challenges. Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to participate in decision-making processes that may be relevant in their lives and to influence decisions taken in their regard—within the family, the school or the community. The principle affirms that children are full-fledged persons who have the right to express their views in all matters affecting them and requires that those views be heard and given due weight in accordance with the child's age and maturity. It recognizes the potential of children to enrich decision-making processes, to share perspectives and to participate as citizens and actors of change. The practical meaning of children's right to participation must be considered in each and every matter concerning children.
Free from pressure and manipulation
The child's participation is a right and children therefore are free to express their views or, if they prefer, to not do so. Children should not be pressured, constrained or influenced in ways that might prevent them from freely expressing their opinions or leave them feeling manipulated. This principle clearly applies in some judicial proceedings, in which a child is forced to participate as a witness even if the legal outcome may contravene the child's best interests.
Children's evolving capacity
The Convention sets no minimum age at which children can begin expressing their views freely, nor does it limit the contexts in which children can express their views. The Convention acknowledges that children can and do form views from a very early age and refers to children's 'evolving capacity' for decision-making. This means, for example, that parents and, where appropriate, members of the family and wider community are expected to give appropriate direction, guidance or advice to children. But parents' guidance and advice takes on greater value and meaning as children grow and develop, gain maturity and experience, become more autonomous and more responsible.
The role of parents and others
The child's evolving capacity represents just one side of the equation: the other involves adults' evolving capacity and willingness to listen to and learn from their children, to understand and consider the child's point of view, to be willing to re-examine their own opinions and attitudes and to envisage solutions that address children's views. For adults, as well as for children, participation is a challenging learning process and cannot be reduced to a simple formality. Fulfilling the right of children to participate entails training and mobilizing adults who live and work with children, so that they are prepared to give children the chance to freely and increasingly participate in society and gain democratic skills.Parents and other family members are most obviously included in this group, as well as teachers, social workers, lawyers, psychologists, the police and other members of the society at large.
Ensuring appropriate information
As mentioned earlier, children's right to participation as outlined in article 12 is closely linked to freedom of expression. It is also related to fulfilling the right to information, a key prerequisite for children's participation to be relevant and meaningful. It is in fact essential that children be provided with the necessary information about options that exist and the consequences of such options so that they can make informed and free decisions. Providing information enables children to gain skills, confidence and maturity in expressing views and influencing decisions.
Participation is the path to other rights
The right to participation is relevant to the exercise of all other rights, within the family, the school and the
larger community context. Thus, for example:
• Adoption. As one of "the persons concerned," the child should be heard in any judicial or administrative adoption proceedings. Article 21(a) refers to the informed consent of persons concerned, including the child.
• Separation from parents. In decisions to be taken on the need to separate a child from his or her parents (for example, on the basis of abuse or neglect), the child—as an "interested party"— must be given an opportunity to participate and make his or her views known.
• Name change. In a decision to be taken on the changing of a child's name, the views of the child should be taken into consideration.
• Right to health. Children are entitled to be informed, have access to information and be supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition (article 24(2)e) so that they may enjoy their right to health.
• Education. Children's participation takes on a special dimension in the area of education. Education should give children the opportunity to develop their talents and abilities to full potential, to gain confidence and self-esteem, to use their initiative and creativity, to gain life skills and take informed decisions and to understand and experience pluralism, tolerance and democratic coexistence.
Genuine participation versus tokenism
Participation cannot be genuine if children have no opportunity to understand the consequences and the impact of their opinions—such non-genuine 'participation' often merely disguises what is actually the manipulation of children, or tokenism. Again, the key to genuine participation is ensuring respect for children's views. In addition to facilitating and supporting activities to foster child participation, it is becoming increasingly important to consider whether and how to ensure follow-up of children's recommendations and concerns.