“When the city forgets its children it forgets its own citizens and it also forgets itself, but if it recovers its relationship with the children, if it gives them time and space to play, if it gives them the floor to speak, listens to their ideas, perhaps it may save itself.” Francesco Tonucci
More and more frequently in Latin America, we are seeing the consolidation of local processes of the construction and formulation of public policies in which, on one hand, those who receive services are being considered protagonists, considered legitimate actors in their reality and able to transform it; and on the other, territory and community are taken as units of analysis and intervention. Within this framework, interesting initiatives spring forth that propose placing childhood as a measure for evaluating the development and quality of life of a locality.
For more than 15 years, different kinds of planning and administration of urban regions have been developed in which children and adolescents have been invited in various ways into the processes of decision making. Children and adolescents talk about the cities where they live and they share their opinions about issues like security, air quality, play spaces, and safe paths to school, among other major aspects about their perception of their surroundings. This reveals particular importance when we take into account that the majority of children live in cities and with these initiatives they are recognized as legitimate actors in the planning processes.
These initiatives propose to position the voice of children as a focal point of action, and have children recognized as actors of public policy and not merely as receptors; that is, to have them as subjects like any other citizen who may speak of how cities affect them, and manifest their position about how they are affected. In this way, children are considered key subjects for local development, with the understanding that their rights bring together interests and needs of the entire community and express priorities that must guide public policy. As Tonucci pointed out, it becomes necessary to assume that children are “environmental indicators” in order to evaluate the quality of life of a city: “if a city is livable, safe and respectful for children, it will be for all citizens.”
At Equity for Children we want to position the debate around child participation and its capacity as a transformative tool, starting with the successes and achievements of these kinds of initiatives. But also, in light of the learning experiences that have come from these initiatives, it seems interesting to us to point out some focal points of the debate about child participation in the context of local development, identifying the challenges that the current context presents for its consolidation and future development.
Although we are aware of the importance of child participation having been sanctioned in article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is necessary to deal with it beyond its normative dimension, and consider it as a quotidian practice situated in conflictive contexts. The practice makes demands of the institutions in which they occur and on the adults in those institutions, generating tensions and conflicts. In effect, it is necessary to actively incorporate a reflection about such tensions, and the uses and manipulations that we adults make when faced with the participation of children in these processes. On the other hand, while we propose a local perspective, we believe it is fundamental to call attention to the existing relationship with global and national levels. That is, we must not overlook the structural condition in which children live – for example, in contexts of exclusion and inequality – and how these conditions affect their ways of living childhood and, thus, the ways of participating in public life.
Also, we cannot ignore the negative effects that have been pointed out with respect to the processes of decentralization and deconcentration. In many cases of participation, before developing political definitions that are closer to the needs of the subjects, processes come about that increase rigidity and control upon families in the poorest sectors of the population.
Finally, while the voices of children and adolescents have to be present in cases of local planning, we must consider that their needs and demands are constituted in relational processes, in which their life contexts converge. In this way, it is necessary to overcome the tendency to make the needs and interests of children – particularly in the most vulnerable sectors – visible in a way that is isolated from the needs and interests of their families.
As we know from the various approaches to the subject of differentiated citizenships, if inequality is not considered at the moment of establishing the conditions and possibilities for participation, this same inequality will establish conditions that silence certain subordinated voices when faced with other dominant ones. At Equidad para la Infancia América Latina, we highlight the need to incorporate reflection on the effects of inequalities and inequity the participative processes, as a challenge that should guide debates that look to the future.