November 20th 2018 marks the 64th anniversary of Universal Children’s Day. It is also the anniversary of the date in 1989 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – the landmark legislation that has defined efforts to realise children’s rights worldwide over the past forty years.
Universal Children’s Day is a celebration of the child rights movement first-and-foremost, and rightfully so. However, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges that still exist for translating child rights legislation into everyday practice.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to lead a study on behalf of the European Commission, which aimed to assess the state of play across Europe with the implementation of UNCRC[i]. The research specifically focused on Article 12, which forms the legal basis of children’s right to be heard and for their views to be taken into account in all matters affecting their lives. Article 12 has since become synonymous with the term ‘participation’.
The research was ambitious in scale and scope. Ecorys worked with the University of the West of England and the Child to Child Trust to review the legal and policy framework for child participation in all 28 European Union (EU) Member States, and to map and assess good practices. We examined the overall arrangements for implementing UNCRC in each country, and reviewed the situation in key sectors[i]. We also recruited and supported children from five countries to undertake child-led research projects, which provided a key source of evidence for the final report to the European Commission[ii].
The study showed a promising overall picture of how countries have responded to the UNCRC at a policy level. Article 12 was reflected to some extent in the laws of all but a very few European countries, with coordinating arrangements typically shared between national ministries, Ombudspersons and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in the child rights field. There were also many inspiring examples of child or youth parliaments and children’s forums, alongside special projects with a focus on children’s decision-making.
So far so good. However, the study also shone light on areas for improvement. The extent of children’s participation rights was found to vary between individual European countries and across policy sectors. In addition, comparatively little progress had been made across Europe regarding children’s participation in political life[i]; in designing, planning and evaluating services provided on their behalf, or in public initiatives affecting their lives (so called ‘civic participation’).
But perhaps the single biggest challenge encountered by the study was the gap between policy and practice. The research underlined that even well established national legislative frameworks did not always translate into meaningful opportunities for decision-making within their everyday lives. All too often, efforts to implement Article 12 were held back by a combination of legal exemptions and restrictions, tensions between child rights and laws governing parental rights and responsibilities, and restrictive public attitudes towards the child’s place in society.
These barriers were felt particularly by children with more vulnerable status within society, for whom there was often a ‘double barrier’ to being heard. This was especially the case for children in public care, asylum-seeking and refugee children, children with special educational needs or disabilities, and those experiencing family conflict.
So what more can be done? The research identified a wealth of examples of promising practices at a country level for policy makers to draw upon, many of which feature within the final report and resource catalogue. These range from the democratic and participatory schools in Portugal, to children’s participation in urban planning and public realm projects in Sweden, and the development of child-friendly standards and practices for the justice sector in Bulgaria.
Beyond these examples, some shared areas for action emerge from the research. The study made recommendations to review and further develop systems for monitoring and evaluating child participation at a country level, to ensure that policy decision making is evidence-led. It also called on European countries to provide greater accountability regarding budgets for implementing child rights legislation, to ensure that these are fit for purpose. It further recommended measures to raise levels of awareness of child rights among legal, health, social care, educational and youth professionals, and training to equip them with practical skills for supporting children’s participation within ‘everyday’ settings.
The challenges and opportunities for children’s participation continue to evolve, and much has changed across Europe since the research took place. There is still work required to level the playing field for child rights between individual countries and between socio-economic groups, as highlighted by the most recent UNICEF Report Card[i]. National policy-making offers an important starting point, but its effective implementation requires a commitment to monitoring and evaluation, and the active engagement of stakeholders at all levels. Only through this combination can we hope to see a genuine shift in practice.
About the author:
Laurie Day is a Director at Ecorys, who leads our work in the field of Children, Young People and Families. He has 20 years’ experience of policy studies and evaluations on child and family policy, including participatory research with vulnerable children and families.
The outputs from the research study are available online, courtesy of the European Commission Directorate-General for Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (JUST):
[i] UNICEF Office of Research (2018). ‘An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries’, Innocenti Report Card 15, UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti, Florence.
[i] Austria was the only EU Member State having lowered the voting age to 16 when the research took place.
[i] The sectors included: local and national government; public health; criminal, civil and administrative justice; social care and child protection; leisure and recreation; asylum and immigration, and child employment.
[ii] The five countries included: Croatia, Greece, Netherlands, Poland and the UK. In total, 741 children took part, including 111 peer researchers and 630 child interviewees.
[i] European Commission Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (2015) Evaluation of legislation, policy and practice on child participation in the European Union (EU) – Final Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.