Childrens’ participation in local democracy

Local councils, with their direct connection to residents, can be powerful drivers of children's participation by creating opportunities for them to be heard and involved.

Children’s participation in democratic life, with strong ties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has become a widely recognised right over the last three decades.

Children’s participation can be best described as the active engagement of children, either individually or in groups, in processes and opportunities where they can express their thoughts and ideas, directly influencing matters that concern them. This ensures that children are not passive recipients but active participants in decisions affecting their lives.

To foster this at the local level, open and respectful dialogue and consultation between children and adults are essential. It is crucial that adults do not underestimate, or merely pretend to respect, children due to their age; they should recognise the need for mutual respect. The level of dialogue and consultation should, of course, be tailored to the child’s age.

What is the ‘local government’?

Local government refers to an institution established through constitutional legislation or executive authority to carry out specific functions within defined geographic areas. Elected officials within local government work in the best interests of their local communities, with a legal obligation to create the necessary platforms that allow full participation of residents in decision-making. This practice fosters a stronger sense of civic engagement and community belonging.

Why should children participate ?

Children’s participation is pivotal for sustainable development, effective governance, and the cultivation of local democracy. Notably, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16 underscores the importance of these factors, emphasising good governance, inclusivity, participation, and representation in decision-making.

From a rights perspective, there is a compelling argument for children’s participation in local governance: it also paves the way for the realisation of their other rights. Certain legislations mandate that all governing bodies ensure the involvement and participation of children in implementing and monitoring decisions, whether legislative or otherwise. Articles also underscore the significance of adolescents’ participation in shaping their own rights.

Beyond the well-documented advantages, fostering regular interaction between children and adults brings even greater rewards. On a local level, this translates to creating well-defined spaces and consistent communication channels. These shouldn’t be temporary solutions for specific events, such as when an election is approaching, but permanent fixtures woven into the fabric of everyday life.

The importance of having a functioning model of participation is crucial not only for children but also for the adults who lead the local community. The information that can be obtained through participatory processes leads to the development of more sustainable projects, both in terms of financing and implementation.

It doesn’t make sense to invest large sums of money in a project that doesn’t cater for the diverse needs of children. Who better than the children themselves to understand what is required to provide suitable recreational opportunities for them? We shouldn’t merely ensure general participatory representation for children but also guarantee that children with different abilities or needs are included and involved. Not all children have the same needs or abilities. This underscores the critical principle of inclusivity. It’s important to remember that inclusivity cannot be achieved if we are not ready to ensure integration.

How can we involve children?

Children should undoubtedly be engaged in everything that affects them directly or in which they may have an interest in the future. For instance, discussions on environmental development should include children and their perspectives. In addition, children should be involved in conversations about community well-being, as they are integral members of these communities. Excluding children from discussions related to inclusion, diversity, culture, and integration is counterproductive. Engaging children in these discussions ensures that decisions made and desired for the future are better suited to the coming generations.

The local councils’ role in all of this

Local councils play a central role in these efforts. They are obligated to establish the necessary platforms to facilitate meaningful dialogue, which should not be limited to addressing children’s rights but should also encompass local democracy and a bottom-up approach. Local councils, with their direct connection to residents, can be powerful drivers of children’s participation by creating opportunities for them to be heard and involved.

Engaging children shouldn’t be a checkbox exercise. When we truly value their contributions to decision-making and community development, all our endeavors become stronger.

Mario Fava is the President of the Local Councils Association – Malta

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