21 March 2012

Youth 21 and the Future of Participation

"There is no more important mission for the Twenty-First Century,"said UN Secretary General,  Ban Ki-moon, on strengthening the UN's engagement with youth. Youth 21 is a global initiative to support youth leadership. As part of the initiative, UNDP and UN-Habitat hosted a meeting from March 15-18 in Nairobi, with the goal of finding ways to better engage youth as leaders and decision-makers. 

Why is there a Focus on this Now?

There is a growing number of young people in the world, with a large percentage of the global population being children and youth. This is known as a youth bulge. Here are some statistics from Ban Ki-Moon's message on Youth 21:

  • Half of the world's people are under twenty-five years years of age.
  • Nearly 90 % of these young people live in developing countries.
  • In the next twenty years, as many as 60 % of all urban dwellers will be under eighteen.

You can watch the whole message here:

In January, Ban Ki-Moon announced that youth will be a focus for the next five years for the UN and that he would appoint a Special Advisor on youth. He says it is important to listen to young people's voices. The Youth 21 meeting was concerned with how this can happen.

Should the Youth Rebel Against Older Generations?

The answer is "Yes!" - according to former South African President, Thabo Mbeki. Whilst addressing the Youth 21 forum, Mbeki highlighted the fact that two thirds of Africa's population consists of youth and said:  

"To ensure that [the youth] actually exercises the leadership everybody rhetorically accepts and proclaims is its due, the youth must organise and ready itself to rebel, so to speak!"

Another quote from Mbeki illustrates one of the problems young people have to overcome to take on leadership roles - the attitude of the older generations. 

"It would obviously be unnatural that I, a member of the older generation, would easily and willingly accept that younger people, my own children, should, at best, sit side-by-side with me as co-leaders, fully empowered to help determine the future of our people."

Older generations will have to accept the need for change, in a world with 1.2 billion young people, so that youth can be able to participate in making important decisions that affect everyone.

Child and Youth Participation Benefits Everybody

Participation is so important that it is a guiding principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Participation Works gives a good overview about the right to participation here.) Governance systems across the world, at local, national and international levels, are structured so that young people's participation and leadership are very much constrained. Not only does the rest of the world need to listen to the voices of these young people, but they can benefit from it too. They can gain a deeper insight into the needs of the young and  the children and youth can help provide solutions to the world's problems.

I recently found a great quote on the site of an organisation for students, aged 16-19, called Envision. One of their volunteers, Vikki, said:

"The young people really inspired me. It was so refreshing to have discussions with young people who have such strong ideals and convictions. When you listen to them tell you how we can make the world a better place, it makes you think there is still hope."

I can identify with this through my work with young people too. I was asked to speak at high schools in Argentina about the work of my organisation, Children's Helpers Worldwide, and the buzz of energy when I entered the classrooms was great, and so different to how it is entering a typical office! Young people can put their energy towards making the world a better place and solving its problems, if they can just have the opportunity to do this.

Although many probably agree that facilitating youth leadership is important, especially in a world where there are so many children and young people, it is essential that we do not just pay lip service to this idea, but actually take action to change the current systems. The Youth 21 initiative is a positive step in this process.

15 March 2012

Child Reporters and News Day

Something unusual caught my attention on the news - Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, being questioned by a group of high school students! This is part of the BBC News School Report Project, which is open to 11 - 16 year olds. Schools register to take part and teachers can make use of resources on the site. It all culminates in a News Day today, where the children at each school have to make their news reports, to be uploaded by 4 pm. 

I caught the full report with Sir Mervyn King on the radio. Before they went into his office, the pupils were saying how they had noticed how the prices of bus tickets and cookies had gone up (but the amount of pocket money they received had not!). They are seeing the effects of the economic crisis and would have the chance to interview someone in a good position to answer their concerns.

The pupils asked questions about issues that impacted them, such as why they will have to pay high prices for tuition fees, when university education was free in the past. They were also curious about other things, such as whether Sir Mervyn King wanted to have a career in banking when he was their age (he didn't) and how he feels about earning so much money when "there are so many people who have gone from having enough, to not being able to pay their bills.I think Sir Mervyn King answered the questions very openly. His answers are on the video on the School Report Project's site. 

I have been pretty focused on child and youth participation issues myself recently, in the run up to the Rio+20 Conference, as part of the UN CSD Major Group for Children and Youth. The other volunteers and I working on this, know that it is so important for young people to engage with issues that affect them, and for everyone to hear their voices. 

BBC News School Report gives pupils a chance to engage with the news and report on the issues they are concerned with. It is great that a group of School Reporters had the opportunity to interview someone like Sir Mervyn King, and other people in high positions. The project also brings the children's voices to a wider audience, so that more people can pay attention to what the pupils have to say. 

It is also good that the children develop their journalistic skills, and can get a taste of what making the news is like. I wish all the pupils taking part in this lots of luck with the project and with meeting their deadline later today!

For schools that want to take part in the project in 2012-13, all the details are here.

07 March 2012

Cape Town: A City of Contrasts - Some Thoughts After Reading UNICEF's Report

Cape Town has been in my thoughts since UNICEF launched its report, The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an Urban World last week. (You can see my overview here.) The report examined the challenges faced by the urban poor. I have seen inequalities in a couple of cities. In Shanghai, the modern skyscrapers contrast dramatically with the older, and more run down areas. In my own city, London, people complain of the "Postcode Lottery" - where access to and quality of services, like education and health and social care, vary in different areas. However, I would like to look at the example of Cape Town here, as, given its history, its level of inequality is extreme. I have also learnt from some amazing people there, who are dedicating their lives to helping children living in urban poverty. 

The nature of my work in Cape Town exposed me to the many different "layers" of the city. For my work with my organisation, CHW, I went to the townships and Cape Flats - the most deprived areas. Adequate housing and sanitation systems are lacking. Parents of children who get sick may not be able to afford the bus fare to take their child to the hospital, so they do not benefit from living within close proximity to hospitals, or other services on offer in the city. Meanwhile, I was staying with a family in a quiet neighbourhood, in the suburb of Plumstead, and was also doing an internship at the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town's central business district. I later returned to do some research projects at the University of the Western Cape, in Bellville. This all felt worlds apart from the townships and Cape Flats.

Some of my photos from Cape Town:


Top left: a home in a township; Top right: the view from the end of my road in Plumstead; 
Bottom left: Children at the Cape Flats. This was in the middle of the day and they were not at school;
Bottom right: View of the centre of Cape Town from Table Mountain.

Violence is a major issue in Cape Town. The Mexican research group Seguridad, Justicia y Paz recently carried out a study based on murder rates in cities and named Cape Town as the most dangerous city outside the Americas.  (Latin America accounted for forty out of the fifty most dangerous cities in the world). The study and list can be downloaded in Spanish here, or see this English article from the Epoch Times. I always got the feeling, from my friends in Cape Town, that Johannesburg was the more dangerous city, although I have no firsthand experience of life there. The South African.com reported that some Cape Town authorities questioned the sources used for the report, and argued that other areas, such as Port Elizabeth and East London (in South Africa, not the UK!) were more violent than Cape Town. Chapter three of UNICEF's report discusses various urban challenges, including violence. It quotes a study which shows that in more unequal societies, people suffer from the experience of relative deprivation, which leads to high rates of crime and violence. 

My organisation, CHW, works with a creche in the area of Retreat, run for children from the townships and Cape Flats. Its founder, Rita, told me that it is important that she provides this service as there are a lot of mothers who need to work, but have nowhere to leave their children. She also works hard to give the children the best start to life through education and providing food for them. When she has funds, she takes the children on trips. I joined her one day, when she was taking some of the children to eat at the chain restaurant, Spur. Rita explained that she wanted the children to have these experiences so that they would realise that there were better things beyond the immediate environment where they are living, so they could strive to reach them as they got older, instead of giving up and staying where they are. Rita has recently opened a second creche.

Some of our other partner organisations work to help the urban poor in other ways. The Future Factory runs sports programmes in schools and holds other sports events - as this can build the children's confidence and also keeps them off the streets and away from criminality and gangs. Its founder, Anne, works tirelessly everyday on these programmes and also supports feeding programmes in townships and helps creches and schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the city. We, at CHW, are also hoping to support the Sarah Fox Children's Convalescent Hospital in Athlone. Children who have had operations or suffered from serious illnesses go there to recover. The staff told me that the children would not be able to recover at home, as the conditions in which they lived were so bad, that it is likely the children would become more sick. The children stay at Sarah Fox until they are strong enough to return home.

Anne running a Future Factory sports event for teenagers who are living in townships and the Cape Flats.

CHW supports projects in Romania too, and the local organisations we work with, that help the Roma population, also have to respond to the challenges of inequality. Chapter three of UNICEF's report gives a case study about the isolation of Roma children in Romania, which illustrates further issues of marginalised children.

UNICEF's report said that statistics often compare children living in rural and urban areas. These figures hide the problems faced by those living in urban poverty, as they include data from richer areas of the same city too. However, for people like Rita, Anne and the staff at the Sarah Fox Hospital, these children are not some hidden statistic - they are the children they work with everyday, in the hope of providing them with more resources in the present, and more opportunities for a better future. We can all do something - whether it is raising awareness of the problems, or finding an initiative in our local cities to volunteer with, or help in other ways, or supporting a project in a city further away. UNICEF has brought the issue to our attention and now it is time to act, just like Rita, Anne and the Sarah Fox staff have been doing.

04 March 2012

UNICEF's Report: "The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an Urban World" - an Overview

Picture from UNICEF's facebook page.

UNICEF launched its flagship report, The State of the World's Children: Children in an Urban World, in Mexico City on 28 February 2012. The focus on the Report was on urban areas because half of the world's population, including more than a billion children, now live in cities and towns. Reading it made me think of some of my own observations of a city of great contrasts: Cape Town. I will write a separate post about the children's projects I have worked with there. Here is a brief look at what the Report says:

The Growing Urban Population

In 2050, seven out of ten people will live in urban areas. The percentage of children living in urban areas has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, as you can see from these pie charts:

Pie Charts taken from page 2 of the Executive Summary of the Report.

Migration from the countryside was (and in some regions still is) the driving factor for urban growth but it is now estimated that children being born in cities and towns accounts for around 60% of urban growth. Most of this growth is occurring in low- and middle-income countries. One in three city dwellers are living in slum conditions. 

Ignoring the Urban Poor?

Comparisons are normally drawn between indicators of children's wellbeing in rural and urban areas (such as the proportion of children reaching their fifth birthday, or going to school, or gaining access to improved sanitation, etc). This hides the problems faced by the urban poor, as the statistics for urban children take into account the wealth of communities elsewhere in the same city. The truth is that there are wide disparities within urban areas, with marginalised children being excluded from essential services and social protection. 

City of Mianyang, Sichuan Province, China.
Picture from UNICEF's facebook page

The Rights of Children in Urban Settings

Of course children living in urban poverty have the same rights as children everywhere, but there are certain challenges which make it more difficult for their rights to be realised. Chapter two of the Report says that inadequate living conditions are among the most pervasive violations of children's rights. Evidence suggests that more children want for shelter and sanitation than are deprived of food.  

Research from different countries has shown that living in a disadvantaged urban area increases the mortality rate of children under five. The Report states:

"Poor water supply and sanitation, the use of hazardous cooking fuels in badly ventilated spaces, overcrowding and the need to pay for health services – which effectively puts them out of reach for the poor – are among the major underlying causes of these under-five deaths.

The following issues were highlighted as violating children's rights, for example their rights to survival and development, to adequate health services, to an education, and so on:
  • Improved drinking water sources have failed to keep up with the urban population growth and neither have improved urban sanitation facilities. Where such facilities exist, they are often shared by a large number of people and are poorly maintained. 
  • High population density make it easier for disease to spread. 
  • Some diseases are preventable through immunisations, but poor service delivery and lack of information and education for parents mean many children living in slums are not immunised against such diseases.
  • One third of children living in urban areas were not registered at birth. Having no legal identity may mean they are unable to access health and other services and opportunities, like having an education.  
  • The higher levels of air pollution in urban areas can cause respiratory infections in children, which when severe, like pneumonia, claim lives. 
  • The traffic in cities is also dangerous. It is estimated that road traffic injuries is the second leading cause of death worldwide among people ages five to fourteen. 
  • HIV and AIDS has been found to be more prevalent among the urban poor. The chart below shows data from six sub-saharan African countries. Poverty can drive girls and women to commercial sex, which exposes them to sexual exploitation and forced sex. Also, children and young people in urban areas are more likely to have access to drugs and will share needles. 
  • Mental health problems among children and adolescents is also an issue - children living in urban poverty have been found to have higher levels of depression and distress than the overall urban average. An often cited factor of mental distress is the stigma of being perceived as a child of the underprivileged.
  • School attendance is much lower among children of the urban poor. This can be because of the costs associated with schooling, or due to other challenges. Schooling may also be of a poor quality if schools are overcrowded or lack facilities.
  • Child trafficking, child labour and children living and working on the streets expose children to danger and crime and very little is done to protect them. 

From chapter two of the Report

Chapter three looks at particular challenges in urban areas. It has sections on migrant children; economic shocks - and impacts on youth employment and how unemployment levels can lead to civil unrest, usually in cities, where the greatest numbers of people are; violence and crime - including that driven by inequality and the sense of deprivation and urban gangs; and natural disasters, where the urban poor are often inadequately served and ill-equipped to prepare and recover from extreme events. 

Children I met in Buenos Aires, Argentina - in traditional dress, playing music to get money.

Ways to Improve the Protection of Urban Children's Rights

The importance of collaboration between authorities and children's rights agencies is highlighted. Much emphasis is also put on the importance of child participation in urban planning and management. This may sound unusual, and is indeed not a common course of action. The Report gives examples where children have taken part in urban planning decisions, such as the mapping project in Rishi Aurobindo Colony, Kolkata, India, and also shows how children can participate in other aspects of the governance and development of their communities through the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative. 

In addition to the above, a variety of programmes which are vital to improving the protection of urban children's rights are discussed. These include programmes which : 
  • ensure non-discrimination; 
  • coordinate interventions relating to hunger and nutrition; 
  • encourage growing of food in the city;  
  • target urban health inequalities; 
  • engage young people in an effort to prevent HIV; 
  • improve water supply and sanitation and hygiene services; 
  • increase access to education for poor and marginalised children; 
  • increase child protection; 
  • develop adequate housing and infrastructure; 
  • carry out urban planning in the interest of child safety (for example, by segregating traffic and reducing driving speeds, as road traffic injuries claim a disproportionate amount of young lives); 
  • make cities safe for girls, supporting girls and preventing and reducing sexual harassment and violence in public spaces; 
  • provide safe and accessible public spaces for play; 
  • promote access to nature; 
  • enhance social cohesion and cultural inclusion and encourage cultural exchange; 
  • use technology to empower young people. 
This is an impressive list! If you have time to read Chapter four of the Report, I would recommend it, as it gives examples of projects in different countries for each of the categories I have listed above. 

Uniting for Children in an Urban World

This is the title of the last chapter of the Report. It explores five key areas in which action is required to realise the rights of children living in urban areas. They form the basis of the recommendations given in the Report's Executive Summary
  1. Better understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas.
  2. Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion.
  3. Ensure that urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and inequality meet the particular needs and priorities of children. 
  4. Promote partnership between all levels of government and the urban poor - especially children and young people.
  5. Pool the resources and energies of international, national, municipal and community actors in support of efforts to ensure that marginalised and impoverished children enjoy their full rights.
UNICEF's report has drawn attention to the difficulties faced by children living in urban poverty and has proposed various ways to help make their rights become a reality. Hopefully this will mobilise us all to take steps towards making cities child friendly, whether this is by raising awareness, or joining or supporting initiatives aimed at improving the lives of these children and protecting their rights.

01 March 2012

Earth Charter Webinar Tomorrow!

The Earth Charter's International Youth Coordinator, Nora Mahmoud, will be hosting a webinar tomorrow (2 March 2012) about the Earth Charter, at 5.00 pm GMT. Sorry for the short notice - I only just heard about it! The webinar is free to attend and you do not have to register in advance. Here is the message I was sent:

The webinar will be hosted by Nora Mahmoud, Youth Coordinator of Earth Charter International Secretariat..
All are welcome to join this online session, you dont need to register your attendance...
To attend this webinar session, simply click the link above at the correct time on FRIDAY.

Click here to go to the Earth Charter Initiative's Youth page. Their activities look great!

I heard about their webinar as I am currently a volunteer for the UN CSD Major Group of Children and Youth, which is working to engage more children and young people with issues of sustainability, leading up to the Rio+20 Conference in June. I will post any further events and webinars here, so more of you can get involved!