Children as citizens
Children’s participation in decisions that affect them is essential for improved service delivery, the latest South African Child Gauge 2010/2011 has revealed.
Released in Cape Town last night (TUESDAY), the annual review by the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute put children’s political rights under the spotlight and explores way in which listening to children can also help strengthen democracy and children’s development.
The Gauge makes the point that children’s right to participation is protected by law and adults have a responsibility to include children in decisions that affect them.
The law also says that professionals like nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers must include children in decisions about their lives.
For example the Children’s Act allows children 12 years and older to agree to their own medical treatment ‘ as long as the doctor is satisfied that the child is able to understand the decision that he or she is taking.
Doctors and nurses must explain things in a way that even very young children can understand. They must encourage children to ask questions, listen to what children have to say, and take children’s views seriously before making decisions. This helps children feel more in control of their lives, and cope better with pain and illness.
‘The benefits of this approach should outweigh the accompanying challenges for stressed service providers,’ said Minette Coetzee, professor of child nursing at UCT.
She added that research showed children’s participation in health care settings could ease staff workloads, help children cope better with pain and illness, reduce hospital errors and improve health outcomes.
The Gauge also points out that children have the right to participate in the running of schools and other learning centres.
The first way is through the Representative Council of Learners that has representatives from grades 8 to 12.
Children are also part of the School Governing Body made up of parents, two teachers and two learners.
Analysis of the latest General Household Survey shows that there are 18,6 million children in South Africa ‘ primarily concentrated in the rural provinces of the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
National data often obscure children’s situation, which means service delivery planners can miss the mark. For example the survey shows 71% of households had access to adequate sanitation in 2009 ‘ but this applied to only 63% of children.
The Gauge shares an example of how listening to children can contribute to positive change.
A 15-year-old from the Eastern Cape heard about the drafting of the Children’s Bill at a conference, and expressed concern that young girls in her community were often abducted for forced marriages.
She was so shocked to learn that people who forced children into marriage could be fined a mere R200, that it spurred her to make a public submission on the draft law to Parliament.
Working with the Children’s Institute, she wrote a submission on the Children’s Bill that called for a heavier fine or prison sentence. Her recommendation was adopted by Parliament, and today people can be imprisoned for up to 10 years for forcing a child into marriage or engagement.
Yet despite this change in legislation, reports on child abductions and forced marriages continue, and not one case has been prosecuted under the new law, according to the Children’s Institute’s Lucy Jamieson: ‘Children’s right to protection will only become a reality when professionals such as teachers, doctors, social workers, police and prosecutors listen to children and take what they have to say seriously.’