The children of today must be heard for the sake of a better tomorrow

For India’s political system to become more accountable, the soft voices of children must be amplified.  

Published : Feb 20, 2024 15:06 IST - 5 MINS READ

A school student speaking during the ‘Mock Parliament of children‘ competition at Zilla Panchayat hall, in Mangaluru on November 25, 2019.

A school student speaking during the ‘Mock Parliament of children‘ competition at Zilla Panchayat hall, in Mangaluru on November 25, 2019. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

India has one of the largest children’s populations in the world—36 per cent of all Indians are below the age of 18—but the country refuses to give these guardians of our future any real opportunity or agency. Not only are kids left out of electoral processes, their hopes and needs seldom guide official policies. Their voices are either muffled or ignored. As another general election approaches, child rights activists are campaigning for greater participation. 

Director of PRATYeK, an NGO dedicated to child rights and welfare, Steve Rocha said, “As a democratic process, elections in India are highly-regarded, but more needs to be done to ensure that children are better heard, represented and consulted. Their fears, hopes and aspirations for their country should be represented too.” Rocha’s NGO recently articulated the demands and desires of 5,000 children from across the country in a 12-page manifesto that was published in multiple regional languages. In its effort to give children a national voice, PRATYeK has also convened a National Inclusive Children’s Parliament (NICP). 

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Nikki, a 16-year-old NICP Union Minister told Frontline, “We, the children of India, may not be voters, but we believe the voices of children can be stronger than adult votes. To secure our future, we feel we must speak up now.” Nikki has been associated with PRATYeK for four years now. She lives in New Delhi’s Gole Jhuggi resettlement area. The home she shares with her family is crowded and rundown. Nikki’s father labours in a clothing store, while her brother works as a delivery boy to supplement the family’s income. A Class XI student at Atal Adarsh Balika Vidyalaya, Nikki’s hunger for knowledge feeds her desire for a better life. PRATYeK helps her fight for justice she has not seen in her own life. 

The PRATYeK manifesto lists demands that range from increased budgets and better healthcare to more accessibility. The manifesto speaks for all children, especially the most vulnerable. The children consulted included refugees, kids with disabilities, and those who came from minority communities, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and urban slums. Children identifying as LGBTQIA+ were also included, as were kids with mental illnesses. 

Ruksar Rahman, the 17-year-old child president of the NICP, said, “We want all children to be given their rights. As a girl, I seek gender rights for all sexual minorities. As a Muslim, I seek rights for all vulnerable Indians, and as a member of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, I seek rights for all people on Earth.” The last demand in PRATYeK’s manifesto reads as follows: “We [want] each political party and individual candidate to devote one day each year to report to children on the progress made in fulfilling their child-centred promises.”

Having compiled PRATYeK’s manifesto, Rocha said, “We want to ensure that this manifesto reaches the doorstep of every single political party. Children’s issues are not always extreme—they exceed life, death, basic education, and healthcare.” Rocha wants children to be allotted 9 per cent of India’s GDP—6 per cent for education and 3 per cent for healthcare. 

Sobha Koshy, Chairperson, Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights interacts with children in the Model Parliament session at the old Assembly hall organised by Kudumbashree in Thiruvananthapuram, on February 20, 2016.

Sobha Koshy, Chairperson, Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights interacts with children in the Model Parliament session at the old Assembly hall organised by Kudumbashree in Thiruvananthapuram, on February 20, 2016. | Photo Credit: Photo: S. Gopakumar

Access to quality healthcare remains a hurdle for many children. India’s infant mortality rate—26.169 deaths per 1,000 live births—remains alarmingly high. Inadequate sanitation, limited access to clean water, and insufficient medical facilities put countless young lives at risk. Also, despite significant recent gains, illiteracy remains a major concern. According to government data, 12,53,019 students from across the country were out of school in the year 2022-23. This lack of sufficient education often only perpetuates further the cycle of poverty.

Home and the world

Given how dire situations are being made worse, child rights activists across the world want children’s parliaments to hold special sessions every year. From Finland to Ethiopia, children’s parliaments are mushrooming everywhere. These platforms provide young people a space where they can learn more about democratic practices, debate policy issues, and influence decision-making. In Bangladesh, the government actively engages with its Child Parliament. Several district-level Child Rights Monitoring Committees ensure that the voices of kids are heard, especially on issues which directly impact them and their lives. 

In Bolivia, the National Congress of Children and Young People, though not officially mandated, has seen 72 of its policy proposals being adopted by the government—a testament to the power of their ideas. In India, however, things are different. Though there exists a Bal Panchayat in the country, its influence on actual official policy remains limited. 

Karnataka, though, has sometimes been an exception. In 2015, then Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, spent more than two hours with 80-odd children during an annual Children’s Parliament UNICEF had organised in Bengaluru’s Vidhana Soudha. Several children questioned the CM on issues ranging from malnourishment, wheelchair access and improper roads to child marriages, female feticide and the devadasi system in the State. On the village level, too, Karnataka has fostered participation of children in its Gram Sabhas. 

The kids are all right

Gloria Burrett, a senior child psychologist advocates for children’s participation in politics. She feels children must demand their rights and become aware of the world’s injustices. Joining groups that campaign for universal rights, she feels, is a healthy alternative for kids: “There is agency in this. Children can express their needs and feelings about an unjust situation in a way that they are heard by adults.” Participating in politics, Burrett feels, strengthens a child’s support system, while also fostering social empathy and connection. “We often associate politics with big moments in history, things like elections, but when you boil it down, politics is how people in groups make decisions at many different levels.”

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Delhi-based child rights expert Bharti Ali asks, “Why should children from the most vulnerable communities and locations not be consulted when governments plan new policies, laws, programmes, and schemes? These decisions can be [better] facilitated by giving children information, knowledge and understanding about various subjects. We must speak to them in a language that is easy for them to understand. A lack of initiative should not rule out their right to help make decisions in matters that affect their life.”

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