Deborah Morris-Travers: Giving kids chance to be heard

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The Unicef NZ Youth Congress will take place in Christchurch in July. Photo / APN
The Unicef NZ Youth Congress will take place in Christchurch in July. Photo / APN

I grew up in the era of children being seen and not heard. A time when parenting styles were authoritarian, children's citizenship was not well understood, and it was rare for children to be heard in any formal decision-making process.

These days there is slightly more understanding of the value of listening to children's views on matters affecting them and a growing understanding that children are citizens with rights.

But that's not to say that children are being listened to, that their rights are upheld and their interests well represented at every level of society; far from it. As most people know, New Zealand needs to do much more to ensure that children are healthy, educated, participating, and protected. Twenty-five per cent of our children live in poverty, which creates chronic illness and reduces educational success, so it's clear that children's rights and interests remain on the margins of political consideration.

The general election is coming up so it's vital that young people's voices are brought to debate about the priority issues facing the nation. At Unicef NZ, we will work to create opportunities for decision-makers and the public to hear what our young citizens have to say. Tomorrow, we open applications for our Youth Congress, an opportunity for young people to discover opportunities for participation and how to shape their world.

In debates about these complex social and economic problems, young people's voices are often poignant and powerful. They cut through ideology to expose the practical reality of life for Kiwi kids. During the heated debate about whether parents should have a legal defence for hitting a child, children talked about their experiences of being hit around the head with heavy implements. That was an important perspective, although difficult for adults to hear.

Another valuable example occurred during consultation on the Government's Vulnerable Children's Action Plan. Through 0800 What's Up, the children's helpline, 1900 children shared their ideas. Many talked about the need for their parents to be well supported by communities and by the government. They wanted their parents to stop being angry and to have time to play.

So, when 55 young people from around the country gather in Christchurch in July for the Unicef NZ Youth Congress we will again have the opportunity to hear what they have to say. Participants will learn how to get involved, as well as generating a communique to decision-makers calling for action on matters of concern.

With voter turnout having reached an all-time low in 2011 (74.2 per cent), and children's issues creating an economic drag on the nation, enabling young people to exercise their rights to participation is important. It has the potential to revitalise our democracy and ensure a strong political focus on the issues of concern to them. We must encourage young voters to enrol and make sure they get to the polling booth. Frankly, if the issues important to young people continue to be ignored, we can expect them to feel even more disenfranchised.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has said it's almost impossible for the older generation to understand the context in which young people now live and it's an absolute mistake for an older generation to project their experiences on to this generation. The upcoming congress enables young people to tell us how it is and access their rights to a voice.

Even if you don't like what they have to say, I hope voters and politicians will be wise enough to listen.

Our future depends on it.

Young people can apply for the Youth Congress at https://www.unicef.org.nz/YouthCongress

The Herald on Sunday will publish a range of different views "out of leftfield" over the next couple of months.

- Herald on Sunday

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