CEO Column: Child participation is the only way forward

Thursday 12 December 2019
The girl sat with her back to the audience. In a heavy peach-coloured jacket, eyes closed, with a microphone in her hand. And she spoke of life in the township where she lives, of fear and inequality. It was a powerful message that fixed the attention of everyone in the room.

All children have the same rights. At least that’s what we understand from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and our own Constitution. But listening to this girl shows how far we are from achieving this ideal.

She doesn’t feel safe to leave her home after dark. She worries about increasing violence at her school, where many of the teachers are ill-equipped and largely absent. She knows full well the price of being “different”. And she wonders what’s next for her, and what kind of world her own children will inherit. She is not alone in this, these issues are echoed in the Children’s Manifesto as well as in the recent Declaration from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament. So why is so little being done about it?

Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) exists for one reason only, and that is to ensure that every child survives, learns, and is protected. We can only do this while in constant conversation with the most vulnerable children, so that their lived experiences inform our strategy. And beyond this, we must be held to account.

Accountability is one of SCSA’s core values. This means being accountable to our supporters, donors and partners, but most of all to children. And one of the most important aspects here is to engage in open communication with children on our operations, to listen to their feedback, and then to act on this.

Which is why, every year, children and young people from our programmes across the country gather in Johannesburg for the ‘CEO Accountability Corner’. This is where we listen to children like the girl in the peach-coloured jacket, and her poem about poverty and deprivation. As well as to others who express themselves through acting out a drama, or simply raising their hand to voice an opinion. 

Here the team from SCSA talk about what we have done, and what we could do better. We gather with young people in small groups to discuss child rights governance, and matters of protection, education and healthcare. Sometimes there is anger and frustration, but mostly the focus is on solutions because we share a common purpose.  

This is just one platform at SCSA for ensuring accountability, and infusing the voices of young people in our work. Soon we will establish a Junior Executive Committee, which will be part of our governance structure, and will directly support the development of strategy. This move will be in line with the National Child Participation Framework, which we encourage government, civil society and business to adopt. 

We are also joint organisers of the annual Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament, where two of the young people in our programs were recently elected as President and Speaker for 2019-2020 (well done, Freddy and Thato!). I attended the most recent Parliament in KwaZulu-Natal, and was struck by the underlying frustration of many young people in the room. The simmering anger that comes from not being heard, and not having their demands adequately addressed. 

We share this frustration at Save the Children South Africa. And so we will do even more over the coming years to deepen child participation in our programme and advocacy, and to take action to ensure the rights of all children and young people are respected and protected. Watch this space.
By Steve Miller, CEO of Save the Children South Africa
About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.
Note to the Editor: If children are affected, we’ve got something to say. Our team of experts are available for comments, interviews and information.