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​“True participation is realised when children embrace the values of democracy.” Rita Panicker, Butterflies

ChildHope has been working with Butterflies India for over a decade. Here, Butterflies’ founder and director Rita Panicker describes the real meaning behind children’s participation.

Children’s participation as a concept has been largely interpreted by practitioners and theorists based on theories emanating from the west. We too were guided by these theories.

These were the questions commonly posed to Butterflies by international agencies: were the children in charge? Were they part of planning programmes and strategies? Were they members of the governing board? Were they involved in hiring and firing and financial planning? The emphasis was on ‘rights’. By putting children ‘in charge’, we completely lost the core value – or spirit - of participation.

We quickly learnt that children’s participation did not mean all the above. By harping on about rights, we missed out on ‘responsibility’ - the flipside of rights. Children were vocal in demanding their rights but silent on their responsibilities. We had to make them understand that rights came with responsibilities.

In the race to be seen as an organisation that values participation, organisations select the most articulate children to share testimonies and to represent them at public events. These children become professional conference-goers. They read papers written by adults in a language that is not a child - nor are they the thoughts and ideas of children.

In some cases, these children do not grow up. A journalist once remarked to me that he had met a 17-year-old from an organisation four years ago, yet when he met him next, the young man maintained he was still 17. These young leaders struggle to give up their positions and their power.

Children’s participation in politics is facilitated by NGOs through numerous children’s councils, parliaments and assemblies. These negotiate with the adult agencies to get their entitlements. This is another area where there is a compelling urge to facilitate children’s participation, without giving much thought to where one should draw the line.

In some cases, these children’s councils and parliaments imitate adult structures, with children imbibing adult power dynamics. Are we thrusting children into roles they are unprepared for? Or are we making adults sensitive to children’s views and involving them while planning a policy, programme or infrastructure for them?

Our experience shows that it is not difficult to organise children into a forum. Children are articulate and opinionated; they are keen to share their views; they are enthusiastic campaigners. But we must consider how we educate children about the values of participation and what it means to be democratic.

For Butterflies, children’s participation does not begin and end with children’s councils and parliaments. These are visible symbols of participation. In our endeavour to listen to children and draw them into the process of decision-making, we are teaching them the principles of democracy.

In Butterflies, every children’s council meeting elects a convenor and a rapporteur to write down the minutes. This gives every child a chance to take on the two roles, preventing the creation of permanent leaders. Children make sure that the quieter or younger members get a chance to voice their views and older children respect the decisions of those younger than them.

Every six months, members of our Child Health Cooperative and Children’s Development Khazana elect a child health educator and child volunteer manager. On several occasions, the latter role has been given to girls as young as 11.

Butterflies has its own children’s media group. They publish a newspaper called Delhi Children’s Times which is produced by Delhi Child Rights Club, a forum of children from 21 NGOs in Delhi, facilitated by Butterflies. ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’ is a radio programme aired every Thursday by Butterflies Broadcasting Children from the All India Radio FM station Rainbow.

To us, true participation is realised when children embrace the values of democracy: to be fair, just and tolerant; to believe in equality; to give others a chance to speak and be heard; to respect diversity and plurality in terms of race, ethnicity, language, religion, caste, class, gender and age. This is our priority in our engagement with children. We have evidence of children negotiating with their parents about continuing education, participation in sports and - especially in the case of girls - prevention of early marriage.

In every initiative that involves children, the test is to ensure that their participation is genuine - not tokenistic and adult-driven.

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