In order for participation to me meaningful, those facilitating must understand the fundamental principles which guide the process. It entails ensuring respect for children’s views and opportunities for child and adolescent participation should be fostered without manipulation and pressure. Since participation is a right, rights holders can choose whether or not they want to exercise this right and to what level they prefer. Children must have access to relevant information in order to learn about issues that concern them, enough so that individual sentiments can emerge. They must also understand the consequences and full impact of their opinions. Opportunities offered must be child-friendly and engaging, taking into account the age and evolving capacities of participants. Children and adolescent participation was first exemplified in Belize in 1996, when Belize hosted the Caribbean Conference on the Rights of the Child. Truly a landmark event in Belizean history, as a simultaneous children’s forum was also held. This conference was the catalyst for participatory initiatives that followed. Over the past eight years, Belize has taken significant strides and made great achievements in the area of child participation. An event such as the Children’s Expo in 1997 gave children and adolescents from across the country to celebrate their culture and express their feelings in relation to their right to practice their own culture. Other events such as the Children’s Elections (1998), Young Women’s Forum (2002) and the Children’s Consultations of Education (2004), among others, have all given Belizean children and adolescents opportunities to let their voices be heard. Belizean youths have also played the role of ambassadors in conferences and forums abroad. Members of the Belize Children’s Advisory Committee represented Belize at the United Nation’s Children Forum, held in New York in May 2002, as a precursor to the United Nations General Assembly Session on Children , held two years later. Youth representatives were recent participants at the Summit on Young People on HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean. These efforts have been occasional and in many cases, considered only as an afterthought. Quite often, outlets for participation are initiated but never sustained. We must not underestimate our children and adolescents. When given the chance, they make significant contributions, and as a growing nation, Belize needs to continue to promote participatory opportunities for its children and young people. The challenge then is to design permanent mechanisms for participation and formalize the process through which follow-up of children’s concerns and recommendations can take place. A tallorder, indeed, but one that can be realized only with genuine interest and perseverance.
Author: Starla Acosta Bradley
Originally published in Belize Today #5/Vol 1/2005