Jessica K. Taft

Sociological fragments on kids, politics, and social change

Tag: Children’s Rights

The Participatory Landscape

I recently attended a meeting between Rosa Maria Ortiz, the Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and representatives of children’s organizations from around Lima.  The meeting highlighted for me the breadth and depth of children’s rights activity in Peru, but also some of the limitations of the right to participation.

It was obvious at this meeting that the organizational terrain of children’s rights and children’s participation in Lima is quiet extensive.  There were kids from a veritable alphabet soup of organizations, each of which is dedicated to promoting kids’ rights and each of which has substantial leadership from the kids themselves.  This includes a consultative council to the institutions of city government (CCONNA), the youth delegates in a nation-wide association of adult-led organizations that focus on children and children’s rights (CONADENNA), two different networks of kids’ organizations (CONNAUPI and RedNNA), school-based organizations for students’ development and rights within each educational institution (Municipios Escolares), and organizations of working children (MANTHOC, MNNATSOP, and ATO-Colibri), plus several others.  While there are many differences between these organizations, they share a discursive emphasis on the promotion of children’s rights and children’s participation.  The kids who are part of these groups are all familiar with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and they spoke fluidly and extensively about how they felt their rights were being supported and/or violated in various contexts of their lives in Lima.  Certainly compared to the US context, where the frame of “children’s rights” is far less visible and where there are very few children’s organizations, this landscape of kids’ organizing activity is incredibly rich.  This is perhaps not surprising given that the US is one of only a few nations to not have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  However, based on my readings from other contexts, the Peruvian children’s rights field also seems to be more extensive than many nations that have signed onto the CRC. An important question, then, is what has made Peru such fertile territory for children’s organizing and the children’s rights paradigm?

Peru also has, as discussed in a recent journal article by Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland, a state apparatus for the protection and promotion of children’s rights.  The DEMUNAs (Defensoría Municipal del Niño y del Adolescente) were authorized by national legislation in 1992, but without funding or structure.  They have since been formalized and, with a 2003 law, became required of all municipalities (but this requirement is far from fully realized).  According to Luttrell-Rowland, the main users of the DEMUNAs are not children forward their own complaints, but mothers seeking child support money from absent fathers or resources and support for addressing family violence.  Her analysis of the feminist implications of a collapsing of women/children in the DEMUNA system is quite important, but the meeting with Rosa Maria Ortiz suggested another implication of this dynamic: that kids, even highly organized kids who are well-versed in the framework of children’s rights, are quite disconnected from the DEMUNA system.  As the kids brought up various complaints, both Rosa Maria Ortiz and a representative from the Municipality of Lima would ask if they had taken this to the DEMUNA, but many had not even heard of the DEMUNAs, or did not know if their district had a DEMUNA, or how to access a DEMUNA.  This may, in part, be because the DEMUNAs have become increasingly connected to women’s organizations than to children’s organizations.

Rosa Maria Ortiz was clearly concerned that the state apparatus for promoting and protecting children’s rights was so absent from the kids’ experiences.  She noted that it was quite a struggle to create this apparatus and “now it appears as if it doesn’t even exist, when we know that it does.”   Peru’s success in this area has been widely celebrated, but there is more work to be done to build channels of communication between the kids’ organizations and the defensorías so that action can be taken on the various problems that kids identify in their schools and communities.

This issue of action, or a lack of action, was also evident in the kids’ commentary on the various spaces for their participation.  Indeed, it was very clear in this meeting that the kids were quite conscious of the limitations on their participation.  They spoke extensively about how there are all these spaces for them to participate, the various consulting councils and organizations, but that this doesn’t mean they actually have any power or influence.  They speak, but they don’t necessarily feel heard by those who make the decisions.  “Participation” doesn’t necessarily grant them any authority or voice in the decisions made by policy-makers or technocrats.

Indeed, this is one of the limits of the concept in how it is articulated in the CRC.  Article 12 reads: “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”  The phrase “being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child,” certainly gives governments and other bodies a fair amount of leeway regarding how they treat children’s participation and children’s voices on the issues that matter to them.  And, as the kids at this meeting were noting, speaking is not the same as being heard.  Participation, then, is a quite different concept from decision-making power or authority.  Under article 12, children have a right to speak, but they do not necessarily have collective rights to political power.  Of course, adults also often feel a lack of political power in relation to the state — social movements are one response to this problem.

Children’s Protagonismo

Protagonismo is a concept that is often very difficult to translate into English, and it is a concept that has been developing over time in Latin America since its emergence in the popular movements in the 1960s and 1970s.  Both the movements themselves and many social scientists and analysts began speaking about “protagonismo popular” to describe the collective action and engagement of the poor, whether it be in neighborhood associations or labor unions.  From this historical moment, protagonismo has had a fairly open, and yet also distinctive meaning.  Within the movements of working children, there has been a fair amount of writing that has tried to elaborate on this concept, to articulate what it means for children to have “progatonismo” or to be “protagonica.”  Alejandro Cussianovich, one of the movement’s founders, and an important theorist, has written a great deal about this, and has argued that the idea of children’s protagonismo makes up a key part of a Latin American theory of childhood.

Protagonismo is not unrelated to the idea of a protagonist, in the literary sense.  It suggests the ability to act, to move a story forward.  It is clearly an active, not a passive position.   According to one piece written by some of the youth in the movement, “protagonismo expresses the presence of children and youth as social and political actors.”  Protagonismo implies agency, an individual’s capacity to act in the world.

But it is not an entirely individualist concept – it is also a collective one.  An individual can be a protagonist, but the protagonismo of children, as it is invoked by these movements, also implies children working together in organization, and developing and enacting their protagonismo as a group.  Tied to the history of social movements, it doesn’t just imply that children are capable social actors, but that they can be a collective entity, a social sector, just like “workers” or “women,” or “the indigenous,” etc, and that this entity has particular interests.  According to one text, “children’s protagonismo initiates and develops a process of restructuring the world in the best interests of children.”  It also implies a challenge to children’s lower status, it suggests that children are not “less than” others, and that they have important roles to play in the world.  It also suggests that they can and should be the ones who make decisions about their own lives (with the support of adults).

Children’s Rights Festival

On July 18th, the kids involved in the project Trabajo de Crecer put on a festival in Villa El Salvador to educate the public (both adults and children) about children’s rights.  There was a lot of singing, dancing, speeches, and many games where players were asked questions about children’s rights.

Most of the emphasis was on the right to participation.  Banners and signs all proclaimed that “our opinion matters!” and that children are the present, not just the future.  This right to participation, as many kids at the festival noted, is currently being threatened by changes to the Peruvian laws covering childhood and adolescence.  The proposed changes state that children have rights to self-expression, participation, and assembly only with the permission and supervision of their parents.  From the perspective of the movements of organized children in Peru, this is a major setback in terms of children’s rights and also violates the underlying principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which grants children these rights without stipulating parental control.

As many scholars of childhood have noted, the participatory clause (article 12) of the Convention is a particularly significant challenge to older paradigms of childhood and requires a substantial re-thinking of children’s political and social roles.  It states that “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”  This clause has led to the development of numerous children’s councils, children’s assemblies, and other participatory bodies around the world (including the Consejos Consultivas de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes in Peru).  However, these councils are often quite limited in terms of the version of democracy that they promote (as Hava Gordon and I have recently written about), in terms of their actual authority and power, and in terms of their membership.

The festival for children’s rights, as a space for building public awareness, seems to me to be one way to complement the structures of participation.  State-based structures for participation help to create opportunities for the implementation of children’s rights, but festivals and public events can also play a role facilitating a cultural shift toward seeing children as social and political actors.



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