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MOOC PCH1x | Welcome: Supporting Children’s Agency | 3. Supporting Children’s Agency


In the section on child
development, adversity, and resilience we learned
about child development and how various forms of adversity, which are amplified in
humanitarian settings, can impact children’s ability to form the core relationships
with families and others that are central to their
healthy development. We also learned about
how, despite adversities, most children demonstrate
resilience and the ability to rebound from difficult experiences. In this section, we will
continue to concentrate on child resilience, but from
a slightly different lens. We will think about how
child protection workers can work with children
in a way that creates the most space for children to articulate their hopes and needs. Especially in humanitarian
settings, we sometimes tend to think of children in paternalistic or some would even say patriarchal terms. Children are perceived
primarily as the objects or beneficiaries of our support. When the bombs are
falling we must find a way to protect the children from them. When the waters are rising during a flood we must place the children
into the life boat. These statements are true
but they also represent a perspective that is,
in many ways, limited. By focusing on what we
should do for children, we fail to represent what
children can and do do for themselves during
humanitarian episodes. All over the world
children have demonstrated that they can not only overcome adversity, but become leaders in
advocating for themselves and other children in their communities. In a variety of settings,
children are expressing themselves and coming
together in dynamic ways that truly challenge power structures. Several inspiring examples come to mind. In the United States for
example, children whose parents had fled conflict
and organized violence in Central America faced uncertainty about their futures while
American politicians debated whether or not these
children should be permitted to remain in the U.S. Working through online
and grassroots coalitions, children and youth came
together and began to create a vision for what
became United We Dream, the United States’ largest
immigrant led youth network that advocates not only
on behalf of children with complex legal status
in the United States, but all immigrants. Eventually growing to
over 400,000 members, their right to dream campaign was critical in helping to secure a
national policy change that allowed these children
to avoid deportation. In another example, in
20 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including many areas affected by armed conflict
and natural disasters, the African Movement of
Working Children and Youth has been building a grassroots movement of working children who advocate for each other within their communities. They have simplified and
adapted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Child to
highlight 12 core rights that affect working children such as, the right to one day of leisure per week and the right to learn
how to read and write. These examples represent high profile, successful cases of how
children working together and building movements can advocate for their own rights when
faced with adversity. But these movements did
not emerge in a vacuum. The children and youth
who built these movements might have been the
leaders, but adult allies also made contributions and
ensured support along the way. Child protection workers
often want to promote children’s participation,
but there can be challenges. First, the concept of child participation can in fact cover many different ideas. We must unpack what we
mean by participation so that we can think about concrete steps that we can take to promote
children participation in a variety of activities. The steps needed to create an appropriate atmosphere for children
to share their thoughts and ideas in the context of
a case management process, for example, would be
different than the actions we need to take to support
a child-led advocacy effort. As we think about child
participation writ large, being concrete and
specific about the context in which we are using the term can help us to make our objectives
and our steps clear. Second, there’s a
cultural bias in settings all over the world that children should be seen and not heard. We are not immune from this bias in our own work child protection actors. Despite using a language
of child participation, the field of child protection can have rather paternalistic overtones. The very language of protection after all suggests children’s vulnerability rather than their resilience. It also suggests the role that adults play in supporting children. To really think about
children’s resilience in agency, what if we change the language in our way of thinking about children? If we genuinely recognize
children as bearers of human rights, we must find ways to open our hearts and minds to hearing
what children have to say. While it is true that children need and have the right to protection, we can learn a lot by thinking about them as engaged citizens in their
communities and countries. We can shift our way of
thinking from paternalism to more genuine and effective support. Some key issues emerge when we think about how to ensure that
children can be leaders. We will delve into the following issues throughout this section. Number one, children’s
ability to participate and to demonstrate their
agency also changes over time. To best understand this
process we must continue to draw upon what we know
about child development, especially the concept
of evolving capacities. Number two, when we
are working with groups of children we must be
aware that some children are more likely to have
the time and resources, including family support, to
participate in our activities. If we do not want to exclude
marginalized children, we need to think about
how to include children of various circumstances
including children with physical and mental disabilities, working children and youth, and others. Number three, even if
we ourselves believe in the necessity of enhancing
children’s participation it can be challenging
to persuade other adults to take children’s voices seriously. There is inherent bias in most places in the world towards
adult voices and ideas. We think that we know best. Working to change this belief among adults should be a core component of our work to promote children’s
agency and participation. Number four, the do no harm principle is especially important
when we are promoting children’s participation since
enhancing children’s voices can put them at risk, especially
when children and youth are speaking truth to power. We must consider how to
support children’s movements without putting them in danger. Child protection workers
must seek to enhance children’s agency in a
variety of processes, programs, and settings. There is a spectrum of ways
in which to think about children’s participation and agency that ranges from working
with individual children to supporting child-led movements. For example, child
protection workers overseeing case management processes will need to communicate with individual children, their siblings, their families, and others in a way that children’s decision making is allowed to flourish. At the same time they need to ensure the children’s best interests are upheld. Meanwhile, child protection
workers overseeing or facilitating group based programs, such as life skills and other programs, will need skills and
methods to create spaces for children to be active participants and leaders in groups of peers
and in their communities. Finally, there are ways
that adults can support child-led movements,
movements in which children come together responding to
commonly perceived needs. The skills adults will
need here will be based in accompaniment and other
supportive strategies. Each of these skills and
approaches may contain different elements, but
they all share a common over arching goal of promoting children’s agency and participation.

Stephen Childs

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