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Power to the kids

September 20, 2011

Around the world, kids are having their say in children parliaments and youth councils. They're helping shape the future of their cities, states and countries, and their own future too.

A child shouts while sitting on a swing
Kids too have something to say about their worldImage: fotolia

Sitting in front of Florian Rattay is the most casually dressed council in the world. The council members aren't wearing suits; they're wearing jeans, T-shirts and sneakers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, is there an amendment to the agenda?" Rattay asks.

This is the youth council for the German city of Bergneustadt, near Cologne. The 17-year-old Rattay is one of the council speakers. These young people want to have their say about the future of their city, and they aren't willing to leave all the decisions to the grown-ups.

International childrens' parliament in Berlin
Kids' parliaments are becoming more popular in GermanyImage: DW / Danisman

"Now to the first agenda item," says Rattay, who conducts the meeting like a pro. Today the council is discussing plans for a rock concert evening, the results of a citizens' survey and a new competition for the city's schools. The teenagers take the job seriously, making suggestions, debating the issues and voting.

As for the adults, here they're only allowed to sit at the periphery and listen. In this council, the youth are in charge.

They aren't just playing at politics, according to 14-year-old Alexander. "You can have a real influence on what happens in the city. For example, the youth council pushed for a skate park and then it actually got built."

More say, more self-confidence

"In the past it was said that children should be seen and not heard," says Rudi Tarneden, a press spokesman for UNICEF. "Now we say we want to know what the children think."

Children and youth parliaments first started more than 30 years ago in France. They started popping up in Germany in the early 1990s and these days almost every big city has one. The representatives are usually between 10 and 18 years old.

UNICEF spokesman Rudi Tarneden
Getting kids involved in decisions is good for kids and society, says TarnedenImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Kids aren't just having their say through parliaments and councils. Local politicians want to know how they think a new playground should look. Teachers are asking what music they want to hear at the school party. And parents are giving their kids a vote when deciding where the family goes on its weekend getaways.

"What this means is that it's no longer command from top to bottom but an attempt to satisfy everyone," says Tarneden. It's not always stress-free and can be a challenge for the parents, he adds, "but it does lead to greater self-confidence for the children."

In most countries children are considered minors who have few rights and must do what adults tell them to do. Many don't even have the right to just be children. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 215 million children around the world must work to help feed their families. In some countries they're even forced to fight the wars of adults as child soldiers.

Children may be the foundation of society, but they're rarely asked for their opinion. That's a big loss, says Tarneden.

"A few years ago, in Rwanda, I saw young people at a national conference discussing racism in their country. Among adults it was taboo to talk about the fact that there was still tension between the Hutu and Tutsi," he says.

"But the kids were able to express the fears and aggression that were present in society and they looked for solutions to these problems together."

Changing society

There's also a children's parliament in Rajasthan, one of the poorest states in India. There, many children must help out at home or work in the fields. Children's education is often cut short and many girls are not sent to school at all. It's a complicated situation and yet even here the children are making their voices heard.

Two girls in India
Girls are often undervalued in India, but being part of a kids' parliament can helpImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Santosh is the fifth leader of Rajasthan's children's parliament, which was set up by an aid organization. During the day she helps her parents and in the evenings she goes to night school.

"Before I became prime minister, I only thought about my own home and what needed to be done there or not," she says. "Since I've been prime minister, I also think about my village and what needs to be done there." A proper water supply system, for example, is on that list.

So far all of the leaders of the children's parliament in Rajasthan have been girls. That's unexpected in a country like India where men are still perceived as more valuable than women. But the boys who have run in the elections have just never gotten enough votes.

For political scientist Roland Roth, this is an example of how children's parliaments in the long run can change wider society. "If early in their lives children and teenagers have the experience that they can make a difference, that they can create something and it's up to them, then these kids will grow up to be good citizens," he says.

Author: Monika Griebeler / hf
Editor: Martin Kuebler