Building a Europe for and with children: Towards a strategy for 2009-2011
Seminar on meaningful and sustainable child participation
Stockholm, 8 September 2008
Speech by Vice-President Günther Krug, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Being in Stockholm, one cannot avoid thinking of Astrid Lindgren, famous author of children’s books whose characters are always independent, dynamic and unconventional – as children are. All of us remember, I’m sure, Pippi (or Peppy) Longstocking, with her flamboyance and uncontrolled energy, but also her imagination, ingenuity and a “fresh look” at things.
As we gather here today for the Conference on Building a Europe for and with Children: Towards a strategy for 2009-2011, which is an excellent initiative of the Swedish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, we all may need this fresh – and even unconventional – look to see things in perspective and to draw inspiration for a vision of new horizons, new goals and new endeavours. We have come here to see to what extent our understanding and vision of a child-friendly society has evolved, and in what direction it continues evolving.
With this fresh look, we have already come to realise that children and young people are an inexhaustible source of ideas, and that their often innovative proposals are of much value for our efforts in many aspects of building and managing our societies. We recognise that children are fully-fledged citizens, endowed with the same rights as adults but whose rights, at the same time, require special protection due to their natural vulnerability – a particularity which calls for out-of-the-ordinary efforts on our part, making it an indispensable and distinctive chapter in our strategies for good governance at all levels.
It is clear that harnessing children’s energy, channelling it for the benefit of our communities – and of children themselves – is a challenging task, which should involve actors at all tiers of governance. One way of meeting this challenge is by ensuring meaningful and sustainable participation of children and young people, side by side with adults, in all aspects of life in our villages, cities, regions and countries, across Europe, and worldwide.
But it is in our territorial communities where such participation must and does begin, where children and young people acquire their first democratic experience and feel most involved in the activities around them, and where they are learning “the ropes” of the democratic machinery to become future leaders of our communities.
I am pleased to say that the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which I represent as its Vice-President, has been playing an active part in bringing the local and regional dimension to the Programme’s implementation. The Congress’ action for children and young people, in particular to stimulate and improve their participation, can be grouped along several axes: action for their integration within our communities, especially children of vulnerable groups of the population; action to create a child-friendly environment at local and regional level, conducive to participation; and action to establish mechanisms and networks to support children’s involvement.
We in the Congress strongly believe that children’s participation goes hand in hand with their integration in local communities and their interaction with people from all generations and walks of life. This is why we put much emphasis on establishing a permanent climate of dialogue and understanding between children and all actors responsible for their well-being, and structures to support it – be it children and youth councils, consultative bodies, youth advisors or offices of ombudsman.
The diversity of backgrounds found in our cities today offers rich opportunities for exchanges between children coming from very different origins with different cultures and experiences, and local and regional authorities play a key role in helping children to seize these opportunities for their benefit. This role is reflected in our principles for intercultural dialogue at local level, as well as in recent Congress recommendations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Access to education is an essential part of integration and another crucial aspect of children’s participation. Education plays a vital role in preparing children and young people to assume their responsibilities in society as they are growing up, and to take an active part in the life of communities, which should begin already in educational institutions. It is of course up to national authorities to make sure that educational policies provide for inclusion of all children, especially those of migrants and from minority groups, but it is the task of local and regional authorities to implement measures for their proper schooling and full involvement in the educational process, and to promote participation of schoolchildren in community life.
In this regard, particular attention should also be paid to the plight of street children and their social reintegration, which was addressed by the Congress in its 2008 recommendation. Bringing these children into the mainstream society is a job for many actors, and the Congress considers that establishing a children’s ombudsman or mediator, preferably with intercultural skills, is of paramount importance to help with the process.
A children’s ombudsman, or ombudsperson, should serve as a focal point for dialogue and interaction with all actors concerned to defend children’s rights. I am glad in this regard that this initiative is gaining momentum across Europe, and that the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) now involves independent offices from twelve countries. I call for more interaction between ombudspersons for children and local and regional authorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is our firm conviction that integration and participation of children can only be meaningful and sustainable if it is backed by a child-friendly environment, providing our younger generation with the right opportunities and helping them to realise their talents and potential. Building such an environment at local and regional level is a big chapter in the Congress’ activities. I would like to draw your attention to two important texts on the subject: our brand new endeavour, the European Urban Charter: Manifesto for a new urbanity, and the recommendations on ‘Child in the city’ adopted by the Congress in May this year.
The Manifesto lays down principles for building and managing an urban environment adapted to the modern needs of communities and covering the various aspects of urban life – ecology, biodiversity, urban planning and development, sustainable consumption, public spaces, access to economy, culture, education and health care. We recommend that the child and family have a special place in our vision of this new city because the interaction of children with others and hence their participation is often handicapped by inadequate urban planning, urban insecurity and other factors leading to their isolation from the social environment.
Speaking about the participation of children and young people, I must refer to the revised European Charter on Youth Participation in Municipal and Regional Affairs. The Charter offers local and regional politicians a flexible and coherent framework in the priority areas such as the promotion of youth employment, education and professional training, sport and leisure activities. Practical tools for youth participation such as training courses, advice centres, youth projects and using local media created for and by young people are strong components to encourage their active involvement. The setting up of a network of youth councils, as it has been done in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is one example of good practice at the national level.
However, making full use of the Charter remains an important challenge for local and regional elected representatives. The Congress proposed additional measures at its 2008 plenary session based on the implementation in tows, cities and regions. Some of these proposals, such as children’s information centres, a child mediator and partnerships with children’s organisations are concerned. should be envisaged for children as well and included into a future recommendation on child participation.
Another aspect important for children and young people’s participation is the use of new information and communication technologies. The Congress has embarked on this subject as part of its work on e-governance and e-democracy at local and regional level, which already produced a recommendation on the potential of e-tools for improving local democracy. This burgeoning area of activity, which has already become known as e-participation, has a great potential for increasing children’s involvement.
Furthermore, the creation of support mechanisms and networks is essential for sustaining our action. The Congress is taking an active part in a number of such networks at municipal level, which has recently mushroomed across Europe. Of those concerning children directly, I should mention the Child-Friendly Cities, the Cities for Children network, and the Berlin Process for integrated youth policies in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, but also the Cities for Local Integration Policy (CLIP) Network, which the Congress co-founded and which helps with the integration of migrants and their families in municipal communities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In conclusion, I would like to stress that the democratic, cohesive and sustainable society which we are seeking to achieve is necessarily multifaceted and multilayered. Multifaceted, because it involves all of us across generations, with special care for the most vulnerable. Multilayered, because it spans all community levels from villages, to towns, cities and their regions. But whichever way you look at this, it begins with children, and it begins at local level. And, it begins with participation.
So should our action. With the Strategy for 2009-2011, it is important now to give further impetus to what was set in motion by the Programme of Action, and the Congress will continue to be an active partner in its implementation.
So that one day, we will see another Peppy Longstocking as President of a Children’s Municipal Council, or of a Children’s Parliament – before she comes of age to lead a nation. An then they will say of us: “A job well done.”