Empowering pupils to campaign for change

Written by: Jess Bool | Published:
Raise your voice: Pupils take part in the national Clean Air Action Day in London in March when young people called on local decision-makers to take action on toxic air (image: Unicef)

Unicef is offering teachers and schools access to free resources to empower young people to learn about their rights and to develop the skills to be able to campaign for change. Jess Bool explains

The voices and actions of children and young people all over the world are forcing both the media and decision-makers to stop and pay attention.

Those that make up Generation Z (those born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s) have turned up in enormous numbers this year, joining a global youth-led movement demanding that we take their voices on climate change seriously and act now.

Members of Generation Alpha (anyone born after 2010) are speaking up and taking part in public debate too – whether it is about body-shaming, climate change, discrimination or responsible business practices.

While they are being celebrated for their citizenship and fluency in campaigning by some, trolls and commentators have been quick to criticise as well. Online attacks can be very damaging to a young person’s sense of self, but does that mean we should stop encouraging children to use their voices?

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark moment when leaders the world over agreed the rights of all children.

One of the fundamental aspects of this treaty is Article 12: the right of the child to have their voice heard on matters that affect them, and for their views to be taken seriously.

How can we empower children and young people to use their voices without putting high-profile youth activists on a pedestal, or setting others up to be criticised, or bullied?

One way is to make it the new norm, modelling behaviours, routinely asking children and young people for their views, handing over power where we can, and listening to their voices.

Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award takes a whole-school approach to this and our recent impact report (2019) showed that child rights education plays a key role in developing young, active and engaged citizens.

Our OutRight youth campaigning initiative takes it a step further – providing teachers and youth workers with free resources to empower young people to learn about their rights.

In some ways, childhood in 1989 looked very different to the lives of children and young people today, so at Unicef UK we are using this moment to ask young people in the UK what child rights issues need the attention of our decision-makers now.

This year we are encouraging pupils to do just that, using the child-friendly learning materials and tools we have developed. We have created quizzes, arts and crafts activities as well as more traditional campaign activities like postcards to send to Parliamentarians.

OutRight has been running for more than five years now and we have seen young people all over the UK campaign on issues like air pollution, violence in schools, and the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. We hope this year’s resources will help young people to show decision-makers where their attention is needed, whether it is about children’s right to play, a safe and clean environment or anything else outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We know that teaching children about their rights and how they can influence those responsible or in power leads young people to feel more engaged with their local community, their education and the global agenda.
Enabling children to understand the impact on their futures of decisions being made now is critical. Children often have the answers that adults cannot find. Moreover, discussing the issues we are all facing today helps young people to develop skills such as critical-thinking, communication and organisation, and encourages confidence.

However, the challenge of finding ways to dedicate already stretched resources to encourage youth-led advocacy in schools and youth clubs, and feel confident and responsible in doing so, should not be underestimated.

Unicef UK has tried to remove some of the barriers and create entry points for those new to child rights and campaigning:

  • Use the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the articles it affords all children, everywhere – e.g. Article 12.
  • Sign up for Unicef UK’s OutRight campaign and use the resources to help show children and other colleagues the power of youth advocacy.
  • Download our Youth Advocacy Toolkit to enable children to design their own campaigns based on issues they are concerned about.

Now is the time to use the energy this movement has created to ensure that all children understand how they can use their voice effectively.

  • Jess Bool is the youth strategy lead at Unicef UK.

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