Time to maximise the voice of the children

Silhouette of children playing in the a park. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Silhouette of children playing in the a park. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 25, 2023


By Dr Stanley Maphosa

Over the years, there have been a lot of discussions on how key it is to present children with platforms where they can express their views, particularly on issues that directly affect them or impact their lives.

Unfortunately, we have seen little progress in this as we continue to observe, particularly across mainstream media, how children are not engaged as sources, even on stories they could have been interviewed, stories with no legal consequences.

Over the years, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) endeavoured to get children talking about issues that affect them and bedevil the same society they are part of. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament (Children’s Parliament) has been a platform of robust engagement for the past eleven years, where key government leaders get to listen to the views, suggestions, and solutions presented by the children.

The Children’s Parliament has, beyond South Africa’s borders, become an institution driving advocacy, participation, and communication for children, by children. It’s for this reason that such an innovative platform cannot be regarded as a mere talk shop, but one that seeks solutions geared toward implementation.

For this reason, as the NMCF, we are confident and optimistic that the children’s parliament can continue to play a transformative role, enhancing children’s voices while driving an empowering narrative for social change.

Last Friday, with a partnership that involves the Department of Social Development, UNICEF, and Save the Children South Africa, the Children’s Parliament convened under the theme of: “Maximising the Voices of Children in addressing social ills affecting them”. It’s a theme intentionally put together as we need to focus more on hearing and understanding children’s voices, and not merely listening with the sole conclusion of fobbing them off.

What was encouraging in the Eastern Cape last week during the sitting of the NMCP was that Lindiwe Zulu, the Minister of Social Development, was intently listening, with other key stakeholders from civil society and policymakers, who all form a critical ecosystem when it comes to addressing the issues raised by the children.

Some of these issues raised do require Minister Zulu’s colleagues in Cabinet, such as the Ministers of Home Affairs, Health, Education, Police, Justice, and Correctional Services, to get involved as their departments deal with some of the critical issues and concerns raised by the children.

While SA does have an exceedingly high incidences of violence, some of the issues raised by children went further and were specific, such as violence against children (VAC), cyber-bullying, teenage pregnancy, mental health, and made submissions to Pillar 7 of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) as recommended by the Presidential summit on GBVF.

As South Africa observes Nelson Mandela month, we do so with his wise words keenly in mind, that: “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation.” It’s a future that calls on us to actively ensure that the prescripts of laws such as the Children’s Act are enforced, and that we truthfully carry out the ideals set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

This is all about child-led advocacy, putting children at the centre, equally holding adults accountable, and making children more assertive. The NMCF is also balancing the expressions with those that promote the responsibility of children. The various communication and participation modalities are culturally and politically sensitive.

Further to the attendees seeking a more pronounced listening and implementing ear from the government, there is also a need for various parliamentary portfolio committees to play an oversight role, so that promised deliverables for children are obtained. This should be in line with not making the Children’s Parliament just a mere token, where the talk is really not walked.

Given, the DSD does deal with a lot when it comes to SA’s myriad challenges of inequality, unemployment, and poverty, to mention a few. It is worth exploring moving children’s issues to another arm of government, such as the Presidency, a Chapter Nine institution, or Parliament.

The recent sitting of the Children’s Parliament has the resonance of beating the same drum, a repetition that smacks of children not being seen, heard, or engaged, further showing how less seriously children are taken, particularly when it comes to policy, planning or even allocating budgets that assist with implementing activities, relevant to children.

Perhaps it is prudent for Parliament to begin considering inviting children to make submissions, on Bills that relate to them.

Last Friday’s discussions were clear, and we should, with sound thoughts, take them into cognisance and ensure that next year’s sitting can look back and say yes, we are making progress as a nation when it comes to hearing and understanding our children, and as adults, we can find ways of accommodating them as we battle the myriad of issues facing our society.

* Dr Stanley Maphosa is the Chief Programs Officer at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and a Social Scientist.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.