Examining child participation in EU political and democratic life

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The most successful schemes to promote children’s participation in policymaking are inclusive, impactful and child-led, but societal views and attitudes about children’s competencies and ability to participate can be barriers to participation.

What is the issue?

Allowing children the right to express their views on the matters that affect them is a key objective of the European Union. Child participation not only helps to raise awareness of policy issues and drive political change, it can also improve children’s confidence and increase their civic and social awareness.

Despite its benefits there are however challenges to child participation within the EU, meaning that children’s views are either not heard, or they are prevented from participating at all. This in turn can lead to children feeling disillusioned and out of touch with the politics affecting their lives.

How did we help?

RAND Europe, in collaboration with Eurochild, examined how children aged 0-18 participate in decision-making processes across the EU, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities for improvement in this area at an EU, member state and local level.

Researchers collected data via focus groups with 224 children in 10 EU member states, interviews with 64 adult stakeholders, workshops with stakeholders, and a targeted literature and data review. Children were involved in all stages of the research process. They reviewed and provided feedback on all data collection tools, contributed to focus group discussions, commented on research and co-created an accessible version of the final report.

The study, conducted for the European Commission Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, will help to inform EU strategy on the rights of the child (2021-24), as well as future strategies on children’s participation in society and possible actions for the EU in this area.

What did we find?

  • The most successful children’s participation schemes, i.e. inclusive, impactful and child-led, involve children in all stages of the policy-making process. However, such approaches are relatively rare as children’s participation is still often not perceived as an integral and continuous part of the decision-making.
  • Full inclusion of children of all backgrounds and ages is still a challenge despite representativeness and inclusiveness being important policy goals.
  • Information sharing and provision of training for children and adults are important to children’s participatory processes but there is little evidence on which training approaches work best.
  • Children’s participation in political and democratic life is made possible through several structures and processes, such as children’s and youth councils and parliaments at the local, regional, national, European and international levels. However, the level and breadth of involvement of children and young people varies between and within countries.
  • Complex bureaucracies, the lack of recognition of children’s participation in legal frameworks and absence of feedback to children on the results of children’s participation may discourage children from participating.
  • Participating as a group gives greater ‘weight’ to children’s views and opinions, according to most children participating in focus groups. Support by adults with experience and knowledge and peer-to-peer support was considered by some children as crucial to feeling empowered to share their views and ideas.
  • Societal views and attitudes about children, their competencies and ability to participate can be barriers to inclusive children’s participation. Children mentioned that some adults do not trust children to participate or believe they are too young or do not have the capacity and knowledge to participate.

What can be done?

  • The use of digital tools and communication platforms can create multiple opportunities for participation for children, however at the same time, digitalisation can also widen inequalities due to unequal level of skills and access to digital devices and internet. Investing more resources may be necessary to make children’s participation a reality across all levels.
  • Many children’s participation processes come about through collective structures and are implemented via regular formats. However, it is equally important to provide opportunities for individual voices to be heard, as well as drive participation via one-off and project-based schemes.
  • Stakeholders highlighted the important role of the EU in promoting children’s participation in political and democratic life across all levels. Future action could focus on giving children’s participation more visibility and ensuring involvement of children in the co-creation of policies at European, national and local levels as well as enabling collaborations and support networks to embed children’s participation mechanisms more firmly in the social structures at all levels.