People need to be part of our community, to be accepted and recognized by the group, to have a support network, to have our interests and opinions valued, and to be able to define our life realities with others. It is what is known as the right to social participation, but not all people have this right recognized.
In our society we have evolved in the way of understanding childhood, overcoming looks that understand boys and girls as “not yet” (they are not yet mature, they still do not have criteria, they still do not know what they want, they still cannot decide ).
Initiatives such as the children’s city of the Italian psychologist Francesco Tonucci , the Educating Cities (AICE) or the Child Friendly Cities (CAI-UNICEF), claim a more active role for children as active citizens.
In these experiences, the child and adolescent participation councils function as local government bodies that seek to guarantee the inclusion of children and adolescents in decision-making and the promotion of initiatives in their municipality. The objective is twofold: they improve governance, by incorporating their perspective, and they educate them for participation.
Link between city council and children
The age of its members usually ranges from 8 to 16 years. As members of the council, they assume the function of representing the children of their municipality, acting as a link between the girls and boys of their school or neighborhood and the local government.
From the councils, they ask for collaboration in aspects such as the design of public spaces, the development of cultural programming, the definition of the municipal childhood plan, etc.
On other occasions, it is the girls and boys themselves who bring their proposals closer, around issues that affect them, as we can see in experiences such as that of the Teo town hall, in which they demand technology-free meeting spaces .
A team from the University of Barcelona, UNED, the University of A Coruña and the University of Seville have been researching around childhood and participation , in order to generate proposals for an active and inclusive citizenship in the community, institutions and governance.
Girls, boys, technical and political personnel from 179 municipalities belonging to the AICE and CAI-UNICEF networks participated in the study , with whom we have counted to reflect on participation and inclusion.
An opportunity for inclusion
Child participation is a clear way of social inclusion for a group that, traditionally, has been placed on the margins of community action and decision-making spaces. In the same way, we must ensure that spaces for participation such as councils are, in turn, inclusive.
It is important to pay attention to the representation of the most vulnerable girls and boys (by socioeconomic level, functional diversity, origin, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual diversity, territory or unique living conditions). In this way, we will prevent them from becoming homogeneous spaces that do not represent the diversity of children’s interests.
By inclusion we refer to the two levels: that of guaranteeing access to opportunities for participation while facing physical, economic, territorial barriers, etc., and a second level of inclusion in the functioning of the bodies, so that the equal opportunities in relationships and decision-making and good treatment dynamics are built.
The formal educational system, schools and institutes, is one of the main keys to ensure this inclusion. First of all, as organizer of the elections through which children democratically elect their representatives. In addition, as a guarantor of the representation of both genders.
It is also essential to collaborate with local entities that work with these most vulnerable children (functional diversity centers or entities, social services, child protection entities, lgtbiq+ or other groups) and bring them closer to these spaces for participation.
To ensure inclusion within the municipal body, it can be open to the participation of different groups that offer training prior to the participation process, providing different resources to improve communication, empathy, assertiveness and social skills.
Finally, another of the outstanding measures to ensure inclusion is the dissemination of information. Thanks to this, both the students and the different educational centers feel that their decisions are known by the community and this motivates them to continue participating, since it makes visible what has been done and achieved in these participatory bodies.
Voices heard, voices included
In order to be part of it and feel recognized, we need to be able to participate in the decisions that affect us. Social participation is key to promoting inclusion.
Through the strategies offered by educational centers and participatory bodies, we can ensure that the silenced voices of children are part of their community’s decision-making.
Author Bios: Javier Morentin-Encina is a Teaching and Research Staff at UNED, at UNED – National University of Distance Education and Maria Barba Nunez is with the Teaching and research staff. Department of Theory and History of Education at the University of A Coruña