Realising the child's right to participate

03 October 2000

Federica Donati, Michelle Lloyd and David Simpson1

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of its entry into force, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) represents a major step forward in thinking about children and their rights. The Convention encourages an attitude which values the child as a citizen, entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms, capable of expressing opinions, participating in life and assuming responsibilities in the family and society.

Article 12 of the Convention: 

  • States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
  • For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided with the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

Respect for the opinion of the child, as formulated in Article 12, has also been expressed as one of the four guiding and mutually reinforcing principles of the Convention by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Children's participation is critical to ensuring that all aspects of the Convention are met; it is vital to ensuring that programmes are designed and resources are allocated to meet children's needs.

The principles of the Convention relating to children's participation foster the development of citizenship whatever the political system might be. Article 29 states that the education of the child should be directed to, inter alia, "the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society" or responsible autonomy. Skills relating to co-operation, mutual understanding, decision-making and social responsibility can only be developed through practice and these skills can be developed, and should start to be developed, early in childhood. When children have this type of experience from an early age they are able to exercise their rights, including later the right to vote, in a responsible fashion.

In this context, the Convention has had a major impact on the way in which adults see children - and children see themselves. The dominant image of children as dependent, weak, passive and the object of rights held by others is being gradually replaced by a new image of the child - that of the child as the subject and holder of rights, and as much more resilient, capable and competent. Although children are still seen as in need of special protection, the Convention has also established that children have important civil and political rights which cannot be ignored. In particular, they have rights which lie at the heart of the concept of citizenship - the right to be involved in decisions which affect them, the right to identity and nationality, and rights to information, expression, assembly and association.

The existence of the Convention and its almost universal ratification by governments around the globe has helped to end the invisibility of children and establish their value in their own right. We now see that children are worth our attention not just because they will one day grow into adults and then become useful members of society, but because they are valuable and active members of our societies now. This is a major shift and it has made children much more "visible" at a societal level instead of being disguised at family, household, and community levels. Children are now seen as having their own rights and interests which need to be considered alongside those of adults.

This changing image of the child has also encouraged people to see children as active participants in their societies in a number of key ways - socially, economically, culturally and increasingly, politically. It has created an environment in which it has become possible to think of children as citizens - involved in public affairs in their local communities and neighbourhoods, and participating in civil society.

Save the Children's position on children's participation

Save the Children is the UK's leading international children's charity, working to create a better future for children. In a world where many children are denied their basic human rights, it champions the rights of all children to a happy, healthy and secure childhood. Save the Children puts the reality of children's lives at the heart of everything they do. Together with children, it is helping to build a better world for present and future generations.

In relation to the child's right to expression, Save the Children endorses the approach introduced by the Convention on the Rights of the Child as stipulated in Article 12. "Participation" is a term increasingly used by those working in the area of children's rights to mean children and young people thinking for themselves, expressing their views effectively, and interacting in a positive way with other people; it means involving children in the decisions which affect their lives, the lives of their community and the larger society in which they live. In the experience of Save the Children, and that of many others, children show resilience, strength and perseverance in many different contexts including conflict and natural disasters. They work, are conscripted, look after siblings and older members of their families, yet what they know and are capable of is still not always taken into account. Most societies seriously underestimate a child's capacity to take well-founded, rational decisions and continue to question their competence.

Save the Children especially seeks to address the needs and rights of children who are marginalised, disadvantaged and discriminated against. Participation in society is an important part of being a member of that society. Planning and decision-making should take account of the views of all groups, especially groups without power or a voice. However, the exercise of children's participation rights depends on access, ability and the availability of means to exercise those rights. The consequences of participation, and incentives to participate also vary among children, for example in some societies on the basis of gender.

We live in a time of ever-increasing pace of social change; new technologies, social and cultural phenomena are creating very different societies. Children require support in developing behaviour which enables them to face up to new issues and take responsibilities in new situations. Increasing cultural diversity demands an improved ability of young people to understand and work with people of different perspectives and across generations.

Save the Children believes that participation is both a vital process and an end in itself but the fact that it needs to be promoted indicates that for many institutions and individuals, and in many contexts, participation is not a regular feature of everyday life. One example of an area in which the participation of young people is both proving vital and challenging is with Save the Children's work among Travellers in the UK.

Background on the situation facing Gypsy/Traveller children in the U.K.

As a children's rights organisation, Save the Children deplores the existence of racism and is acutely aware of the debilitation effects discrimination can have on children's lives and their role as active citizens in UK society.

Romani, Gypsy2 and Traveller children experience racist behaviour in many settings, both as individuals and collectively. Racism is not always overt and violent. Instead it can be covert and often goes unnoticed in daily life. One teacher in a recent study of Traveller experiences at school in Scotland: "I'm sure there is a bit of name calling but they never complain about it … they don't tend to come to you and say 'somebody's calling me names' ... they tend to tough it out3." This kind of racism is frequently overlooked and rarely reported, but the cumulative effect of such incidents can be devastating, particularly for young people.

Our research and fieldwork experience indicates that many Roma, Gypsies and Travellers and their children are continually discriminated against on the grounds of their ethnicity by a range of community groups, public agencies, individuals, private businesses and central government. Romani, Gypsy and Traveller families still encounter difficulties in accessing basic services that most of the settled community now take for granted. In Northern Ireland, a government health survey in 1989 showed that Traveller children under ten years of age were ten times more likely to die than settled children. In Scotland our casework in the year 2000 still includes cases of pregnant Romani, Gypsy and Traveller women being refused treatment at General Practitioners' (GP) surgeries. Similarly, a Save the Children investigation revealed a consistent pattern of rejection and discrimination with 63% of caravan parks refusing accommodation to Traveller families, despite vacant pitches being available, including 50% where the caravan parks were owned by local authorities4.

With few exceptions, this kind of discrimination is allowed to pass unchallenged. Save the Children observes an ease in society about overt discrimination towards the Romani, Gypsy and Traveller community manifested in a range of ways: signs barring Travellers from caravan sites, clearly breaching the Race Relations Act of 1976; refusal of service in licensed premises; comments by residents opposing new Traveller sites suggesting that the local school would be "swamped" by Traveller children or that there would be a rise in crime, etc. There is also subtle, indirect discrimination practised by private agencies and public bodies such as local authorities. Examples include Romani, Gypsy and Traveller families being "encouraged" to attend a particular doctor or school, and the numerous restrictive rules applied to Traveller accommodation which would not be applied to other housing.

Save the Children has noted that many Romani, Gypsy and Traveller families feel they have to accept discriminatory treatment because it is both commonplace and historical, and because there is no effective remedy in the short-term. In our experience, Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are rarely perceived as being the subjects of racial harassment and discrimination because racism is predominately considered in terms of colour. The few Roma, Gypsies and Travellers who have tried to challenge such attitudes and practices through the courts, using the Race Relations Act of 1976, have found the process expensive and time-consuming with, in practice, the burden of proof for proving that an action was racist falling squarely on the victim's shoulders.

The voices of young Roma in the UK

Save the Children has been working with Romani, Gypsy and Traveller children and young people in the UK for many years in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Central to this work has been the active promotion of the right of Romani, Gypsy and Traveller children and young people to express their views. Throughout its work in all four regions of the UK, Save the Children seeks to highlight the importance of the involvement and participation of children and young people in all aspects of decision-making which affect their lives and their role as active citizens in society. Some examples of Save the Children's work in the UK are described below.


Save the Children in Scotland has been working with the Romani, Gypsy and Traveller community for over 18 years. Published research and family casework clearly indicate that Romani, Gypsy and and Traveller parents and their children regularly suffer discrimination because of their ethnic origins and society's negative view of their culture. In order to advance the right of participation of Romani, Gypsy and Traveller children and young people, Save the Children has promoted several initiatives at local, national and international levels.


In response to demands from young Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, Save the Children has designed and organised several health education courses with teenage Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in rural and urban Scotland. These courses, including day events and residential weekends (where we all go away to a centre and stay overnight or for the weekend), promoted health in a fun and participatory way, providing much needed opportunities to discuss health topics. As one young Traveller said:

Speaking to the female doctor who came to our group was great; we don't otherwise get many opportunities to ask questions.

Participants worked together to identify issues of concern and develop strategies to address those issues. More recently, some of the early participants are now working as youth workers to deliver the courses, and develop new materials, to young members of their own communities.


The new Scottish Parliament has responsibilities related to the lives of children and has therefore become a key focus for Save the Children's work with Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in Scotland. We have been actively working to open up avenues whereby young Roma, Gypsies and Travellers can express their own views to, and interact positively with, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

In December 1999, to mark ten years of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the non-governmental organisation Scottish Alliance for Children's Rights organised the ground-breaking "Open Door" event. Young people from across Scotland, including young Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, were given access to the Scottish Parliament to ask questions of MSP's about the things that really matter to them. The young Gypsy/Travellers quizzed MSPs on issues such as education, bullying, conditions on sites and health. In addition, they demanded to know what the MSPs were going to do to tackle the discrimination against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers. Afterwards one of the young Gypsy/Travellers commented: 

I went to the Parliament building to meet some MSPs so that we could try and get recognised as an ethnic minority group. We don't want anything special. I hope in the near future our rights will be recognised and Gypsies and Travellers will have equal rights with everyone else.

Since that meeting, a young Traveller has been corresponding and meeting with several MSPs, resulting in an invitation for a group of young Roma, Gypsies and Travellers to give a presentation to the Scottish Parliament's Equal Opportunities Committee later this year.


Nadia, a young Traveller who has been working as a volunteer for Save the Children in Scotland, was recently asked to represent the International Save the Children Alliance at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights 56th session in Geneva. Nadia felt this was a unique opportunity to present her views and to try to influence the decision-makers. As Nadia herself explained:

Adults rarely take young people's views into consideration when making policies and decisions. It should be a basic right to be involved in the decision-making which affects your lives, but achieving that right seems a very long way off. After all it's our future they are discussing. Maybe because I'm young myself, I think this is the way forward. At meetings like this we learn to speak out about our situation and we also learn about other cultures. Also, by being there I could challenge some of the many stereotypes and assumptions about our community - most people learn about us through the media and most of what they see/read/hear is negative. If nothing else, just by being there people learned that I don't have horns coming out of my head!

As well as providing a learning experience for other people, Nadia felt: 

This experience was also great for me personally. It gave me motivation and provided a brilliant learning opportunity. I want to use that knowledge to encourage others, like me, to speak out. I learnt a lot about how decisions are taken and how to try to get change for the better. I know change won't happen overnight but we have got to keep trying and challenging unfair decisions and policies. We aren't asking for anything special, just some respect.


In England, Save the Children has promoted the right to participation of children and young people through the "Saying Power Scheme Award Holders". This is a UK-wide project funded through the Millennium Commission, Comic Relief and Save the Children. Young people (aged 16-20 years) who have experienced disadvantage can apply to become a "Millennium Award Holder". If selected, they are funded to work on a project of their choice for one year under the supervision of Save the Children UK and a host organisation.

For the third year of the scheme, which is due to begin in September of this year, a young English Romani woman has been selected as an Award Holder for the Midlands. She will be working on a project to raise issues about how lack of access to secondary education and constant discrimination has had an impact on young Roma, Gypsies and Traveller people in their life-choices, especially with regard to employment. She will be raising awareness of the issues within her own and external communities. During the course of the year she will spend time with other Award Holders, who are themselves drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds. This in itself offers important opportunities for breaking down cultural barriers and challenging stereotypes.

Northern Ireland

Building on the work of the Belfast Travellers Education & Development Group's community worker apprenticeship scheme, the Northern Ireland Save the Children programme has recently provided funding over a three year period to support Paddy Mongan, a young Belfast Traveller6, in the development of an education project. It aims to work with local Traveller communities in West Belfast. Paddy is one of three young Travellers who have graduated over the past two years from the above scheme. Each of these trainee community workers has now taken on a specific focus for development work.

Recently, Paddy has been carrying out focus group research with Traveller children at both primary and post-primary level, about their experiences of education and aspirations for the future. A key issue for Travellers in Belfast is the existence of a Traveller-only primary school (St. Mary's) in Northern Ireland, despite the general Department of Education policy which favours integrated education between Travellers and settled children. Paddy's project aims to explore the issues around this, and the broader issues of educational expectations, with both Traveller children and their parents. A key objective for his project is the establishment of a Young Travellers Education Forum in Belfast. Save the Children has been involved in the Board of Management of Belfast Travellers Education & Development Group (BTEDG) for several years, and is also represented on a small advisory group working directly to support Paddy with his project.

As in England, one of Northern Ireland's Saying Power Award Holders this year will be a young Traveller from West Belfast. Dean Donahue's project will provide coaching in a variety of sports as a medium to bring together young Traveller and settled people, and to provide opportunities for them to explore issues of difference and commonality. As Dean explains it: "By being an Award Holder I will gain the skills, knowledge and understanding of the work that needs to be done with young people - especially Travellers - and how I can create opportunities for them to express themselves."

A further important project promoting children's right to participation was the "Real Deal". This was a consultation project undertaken by a range of agencies including Save the Children, involving 150 young people from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The project, which was completed and published in 1999, aimed to find out what young people thought about different aspects of their lives, particularly in relation to how government policies and practice, as well as the actions of members of the wider society, affected them. Groups met to discuss a range of topics, including education, employment, culture and identity, leisure and recreation, transition to adulthood and government and politics. In Northern Ireland, one of the consulted groups were young Travellers from West Belfast.

Following on from Real Deal, Save the Children in Northern Ireland has now commissioned a participative research project with young Travellers in Belfast and Derry. The new project will partly draw on the existing work carried out for the Real Deal report. Its aim is to facilitate Travellers in articulating the needs and aspirations of young Travellers in the Northern Ireland in the context of current statutory policy for the benefit of their own communities as well as the wider society.

A researcher will facilitate a series of discussion groups with Travellers on their experiences on a range of issues, such as education, employment, family life (perceptions of parenting/ hopes for their children), nomadism, culture and identity (including language), accommodation and health. These themes will be decided in partnership with the young Travellers. The young Travellers will produce a report which will illustrate their experiences of being Travellers. A website will also be developed together with a photographic exhibition of Traveller life as seen through the eyes of young Travellers.

As well as producing materials on Traveller life, the project will provide policy makers with information which will inform them of the reality of young Travellers' lives. A policy recommendation paper will also be developed, aimed at the statutory sector, drawing on findings from the research. The project, by responding to a range of forthcoming policy opportunities, will provide opportunities for young Travellers to engage directly with policy makers and practitioners.

Under-pinning the project is the premise that there is little point in settled people defining young Travellers' lives when the capacity is now in place for Travellers to do so themselves. In this context, the absence of any work on/with young Travellers makes the research potentially very important and therefore all the more difficult and interesting.

Save the Children therefore sees projects like Paddy's and the follow-up to the Real Deal research with Travellers as critical at this moment in Traveller history in Northern Ireland for articulating the views of Travellers clearly and with growing confidence. This represents probably the best opportunity ever to make significant advances in improving the quality of life for Travellers, and securing a greater acceptance and recognition of their culture - including nomadism. A strong voice from Travellers themselves - largely missing to date in Northern Ireland - is the new element which may ultimately make a difference.


Children's citizenship is now a growing reality. Children's citizenship is about encouraging children's responsible participation in civil society, democracy and public affairs. In order for this to happen certain essential pre-conditions have to be in place. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties clearly state that these include a range of important civil and political rights, such as access to information, the right to be heard and freedom of association, religion and expression.

Despite considerable obstacles to its realisation, the number of initiatives and examples of good practice is now increasing steadily. The methods by which children's citizenship can be encouraged are now becoming clearer, and training and other materials are now beginning to be published which will help to disseminate them more widely. However, a number of concerns remain. First, there is the importance of generalising current work so that all children have the opportunity to experience and practice their citizenship rights. Secondly, there is the need to reinforce the practice of citizenship in the public arena with positive change in the family and school. Thirdly, much more work is needed to increase awareness and action on the broad range of children's civil and political rights.

Societies, democracies, schools and families will all benefit from the increased participation of children in decisions affecting their lives. This means involving all groups of children, without discrimination, in those decision-making processes that affect their lives. Save the Children considers children's participation key to all its work. We therefore will continue to work with Roma, Gypsies and Travellers to ensure the voices of younger members of the community are heard at local, national and international levels and will encourage other agencies and institutions to adopt a similar approach.


  1. Federica Donati is the Human Rights Adviser at Save the Children UK. She is based in the UK/Europe Region and co-ordinates the "Denied a Future? The Right to Education for Roma/Gypsy and Traveller Children" project. Michelle Lloyd works with Gypsy/Travellers for over nine years. She is based in Save the Children's Edinburgh office and has extensive experience in advocacy, research and working with young Travellers throughout Scotland. David Simpson is the Assistant Programme Director of Save the Children in Northern Ireland. He was part of the recent Government working group on Travellers in Northern Ireland, under the Promoting Social Inclusion initiative, and is on the executive of Traveller Movement (Northern Ireland), an umbrella non-governmental organisation for Travellers in that region.
  2. For the most part, the term "Gypsy" in Britain is self-ascribed.
  3. Lloyd G., et al, 1999, Travellers at School: The Experience of Parents, Pupils and Teachers, p.6.
  4. Lloyd, M and Morran, R. 1997 Failing the Test, Save the Children (Scotland).
  5. The information in this section was provided by Margaret Thompson, Assistant Programme Director, England Programme, West Midlands.
  6. In Ireland the term Traveller is the description of choice for the community of people recognised as Irish Travellers - it does not have negative connotations for them.


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