Amy Cooper, Research Assistant – ICCRP, PhD Student, Concordia University, Canada
Natasha Blanchet-Cohen, Associate Professor, Concordia University, Canada 
Holly Doel-Mackaway, Expert Counsellor for Children, Indigenous Peoples and Gender, LAWASIA Human Rights Committee; Macquarie University, Australia

All public policies impact young people in some shape or form, but how do young people participate in the policy and legislative process? What are the opportunities and challenges for young people to participate in policy work? What is the role of intergenerational relationships within this work? These questions guided the webinar “Using law and policy for children’s rights” hosted by the International and Canadian Children’s Rights Partnership’s (ICCRP) Policy Working Group in May 2023.

Speakers from diverse contexts and varying fields of expertise contributed to a rich and informative discussion. Elvis Fokala (Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria) drew on research on children’s participation in development frameworks in Africa, Terence Hamilton (UNICEF Canada) reflected on the Canadian context, and Fiona Morrison (University of Edinburgh) spoke to children’s participation in family law proceedings in Scotland. The conversation was moderated by working group co-leads Holly Doel-Mackaway and Natasha Blanchet-Cohen.

What follows are some takeaways to spark reflection and connections amongst practitioners, scholars and researchers working in the area of policy and children’s rights.

Young people are key actors in the policy process

What becomes possible when we start with the presumption that young people are key actors of the policy process? This is what panellist Fiona Morrison (University of Edinburgh) invited us to consider through her work on children’s participation in family law procedures in Scotland. 

Morrison’s research observed that young people’s involvement in custody decisions remains overlooked or undervalued due to beliefs of their vulnerability. While the safety and well-being of children is of paramount concern, she cautioned us about the limitations of using vulnerability as the guiding rationale for their exclusion in decision-making. For aren’t we all, as she noted, “vulnerable in different ways”? 

“We need to monitor and evaluate what we’re doing. I think children are probably the best place to answer how effective policy is…and how it is actually improving children’s lives or helping their rights to become real.”

 – Fiona Morrison, University of Edinburgh

Through her work, Morrison found that the court system is often not tailored to the needs of young people, but instead to the busy adults around them. Such limitations in young people’s participation procedures within Scottish courts have resulted in a monitoring and implementation gap. She encouraged us to consider the possibilities that could emerge if more systems worked with and for young people, and not just the adults within them. 

Young people’s participation in decision-making is predicated on relationships of trust. However, opportunities to build trusting relationships within institutions take time, resources, and capacity. 

Much of young people’s participation work is centered on training children to participate in law and policy spaces. Morrison suggests instead how we “need to flip it around” and have adults engage in training themselves to better support children’s participation.

Coordinating efforts for young people’s participation in public policy

Young people’s participation in law and policy also requires a coordinated effort from the legislative sphere at a domestic level. While the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified international human rights convention, implementation of the UNCRC remains contingent on its integration into national-level frameworks. 

Panellist Elvis Fokala (Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria) discussed his extensive work across the African continent and commented on the challenges in the domestication of regional and international mechanisms, such as the UNCRC and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

“Government officials or parents…when you read Article 12 of the UNCRC [which provides children with the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them]…do not forget the last part of that provision, which requires the element of due weight…You also have a responsibility to give [children’s views] due weight.”

                                    – Elvis Fokala, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

Fokala further discussed the lack of dedicated domestic spaces for coordinating children’s rights also limits the necessary research required to monitor and evaluate child-related legislation alongside young people. 

Despite these domestic limitations, Fokala sees promise in regional-level spaces for dialogue and coordination, such as the recent inclusion of National Human Rights Institutions within the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. He shared how Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe have seen important shifts in children’s rights, and such spaces lend themselves to the cross-pollination of good practices across the continent. 

Opportunities for research, monitoring and evaluation of young people’s participation are critical, not only for holding governments accountable to the UNCRC, but for their ability to influence policy and practice more broadly. He concluded that the more we continue to generate research and publish in the area of children’s rights, the more it will resonate with governments of its need and importance.

Young people’s participation must be intentional and sustainable

According to Terence Hamilton of UNICEF Canada, it is always important to consider the impacts on diverse young people when creating legislation and policy. Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) tools, like UNICEF’s Child Policy Lens, help evaluate the impact of proposed legislation on children. Additionally, they prompt decision-makers to consider how young people can meaningfully participate in the design of proposed legislation policies, as well as in budgetary decisions. 

“The challenge is to build something beyond yourself…What are the structures that we are building so that [young people’s participation] can continue beyond individual work.” 

 – Terrence Hamilton, UNICEF Canada 

Leveraging CRIA tools, facilitates institutions to move beyond tokenism towards institutionalising young people’s participation. It is also a means to tap into intergenerational relationships and partnerships that can help transform the legal and policy frameworks to advance the realisation of children’s rights.

Hamilton shared how young people’s meaningful participation in decision-making demands accountability from decision-makers to take their opinions seriously. He reminds us that one-off consultation makes it difficult for young people to hold decision-makers accountable, so moving to build those structures and processes within institutions and systems is where attention needs to be put.

Moving forward

Clearly, realising young people’s participatory rights in policy work is an ongoing collaborative effort with different points of entry and complexities across regions. The panellists, in various ways, articulated the intergenerational contours of this work and shared the call to engage with, and seek young people’s inputs within law and policy development, implementation, and evaluation.  

We encourage people to watch the webinar. To learn more about the work we are doing through the ICCRP Policy Working Group, please visit our webpage.