Children and Adolescents Have a Right to be Heard
There is no shortage of international laws covering children and adolescents' rights, which, among other provisions, stress the importance of educating children on their rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child deals with this issue in Article 29 as well as in Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which deals with the right of individuals to have access to information and ideas freely.
However, all these laws are not enforced, so never actually become truly effective. The extensive violation of children and adolescents' rights, particularly in the field of education, is a globally felt problem, even though its causes and effects may differ from country to country.
Informing children and adolescents on their own rights is absolutely crucial for their education, in order to promote conditions for them to grow and develop with dignity and respect for their fundamental human rights. When they don't know that, they become even more vulnerable to the violations affecting them and are also weaker in demanding the enforcement of the laws, and in assisting, according to their capabilities, to ensure their observance.
Guaranteeing that children and adolescents learn about their rights is something we’re all responsible for. An effective way to achieve this goal is by training adult caretakers and educators – including family members – of children and adolescents on their own rights, so they can fulfil their duties in guaranteeing them, as well as spread that knowledge among children and adolescents.
By being aware of their rights it is possible for children and adolescents to have greater engagement in their own education
A good example of an initiative that achieves this is the Alana Institute’s Ecoativos, a Brazilian NGO whose mission is to “honor the child”. In its program Criança e Consumo (Child and Consumption), which deals with the impact of consumerism and advertising targeted at children, it conducts the project Ecoativos, in partnership with UNEP – United Nations Environment Program, precisely to train educators of public schools in Brazil on issues related to consumption, sustainability and the care for the environment.
Through this project, participating educators and schools can encourage their students, children and adolescents, to start activities in their communities with the Design for Change Brazil methodology and its four pillars: protagonism, empathy, creativity and teamwork, as well as to learn more about Children’s and Human Rights.
In order for us to take care of children and adolescents, it’s necessary that we also take care of their families and educators. Public policies often attempt to focus exclusively on children and adolescents, without paying attention to the fact that the adults who are a part of their environment are the ones who can contribute the most to enforce their fundamental rights. Not surprisingly, a recent research report by HundrED has shown that mothers, fathers and caretakers are extremely concerned about themselves as stakeholders when it comes to assessing which resources should be improved in schools.
By being aware of their rights it is possible for children and adolescents to have greater engagement in their own education, according to their age and a suitable level of participation aligned with their developmental stage. For children and adolescents, engagement is directly related to the opportunity for them to have a voice in the school community, a right which is also legally provided to them and, in the global context, is covered by Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: "When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account. (…) The Convention encourages adults to listen to the opinions of children and involve them in decision-making -- not give children authority over adults. (…) Moreover, the Convention recognizes that the level of a child’s participation in decisions must be appropriate to the child's level of maturity".
In this sense, the above mentioned HundrED latest research report, which includes a global youth survey, has concluded that student’s voices should be heard when looking at improving education. Students' voices are the most powerful ones since they are the major stakeholders, who suffer the most from the mismatch between the schools’ environment and the real world outside of the classroom.
The power of student voices was seen in Brazil between the years 2015 and 2016, when the demonstrations and occupations known as “the secondary education spring" took place at public schools in Brazil, led by high-school students who were dissatisfied with governmental measures impacting public policies of education. They demanded greater participation in school-related decisions, subverting the assumption that they would be at school simply as passive agents who receive information, and affirming their roles as subjects of their own learning.
The movement began in the states of Goias and Sao Paulo, where 213 schools were occupied by students, and resulted in the resignation of the Secretary of Education and in the suspension of the reorganization plan that had been proposed by the government without a previous debate with the adolescents. After that, the movement expanded to the state of Paraná, when 850 schools were occupied by students questioning a legislative proposal for austerity measures and for a change to the Federal Constitution of Brazil in order to freeze spending on social programs – including education – for 20 years. They also opposed the flexibilization of their curriculum and the conservative movement called Escola Sem Partido (“Non-partisan School"), which has spread across municipalities in the country with the aim to silence teachers on issues such as gender, politics, and religion, and which has been heavily criticized by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Students' voices are the most powerful ones since they are the major stakeholders, who suffer the most from the mismatch between the schools’ environment and the real world outside of the classroom.
Giving children and adolescents a voice does not simply mean asking questions to obtain answers, but to be truly present and to listen to what they have to say; not only by their words, but also by other non-verbal forms of communication, such as their actions, expressions, play, songs, stories, drawings, sculptures, and even how they dress. Listening to children and adolescents sensitively is essential so they can be truly listened to, and so that they are considered relevant stakeholders in the decision-making of public policies concerning them and their education.
The program Território do Brincar (“Territory of Play”), also from Alana Institute, is dedicated to listening, exchanging knowledge, documenting, and disseminating the culture of childhood, and is an excellent example of how we can listen to children sensitively and generate profound results capable of embracing different cultural settings of all distinct childhoods in the country.
That program discusses the issue of spaces in a very relevant way and shows how places enjoying exuberant nature while having schools made of concrete – without proper ventilation and unrelated to their external environment – mismatch life. The inclusion of the Space & Environment issue in the research conducted by HundrED as something to be improved by many of the stakeholders shows that education needs to reinvent itself not only in terms of its content and form but also its physical spaces. The "unwalling" of childhood and the understanding that a school is a place where the contact with nature should be promoted, is an urging issue, as the program Criança e Natureza (“Children and Nature”), from Alana Institute, has shown.
We cannot forget our responsibility for children and adolescents wellbeing, and this begins with us listening to them. In order for children and adolescents to have their right to education fully realized, they need to become protagonists in their educational process, in formal and informal contexts. Thus, we can and should listen to their voices in all possible ways. Only then, as a global community, can we help every child to flourish.
Isabella Henriques is a HundrED Academy Member, lawyer and Advocacy Director at the Alana Institute. Head to our research page to read our full research report 'Every Child To Flourish' – including the student survey!