Adebayo Fayoyin
Publication Date

“Child rights advocates are optimistic of its transformative role in enhancing the voice of young people and instituting an empowering narrative for social change. However, it is constrained by conceptual and programmatic weaknesses which impair its effectiveness as a tool of meaningful participation and communication by children.”

Using a case study of the South Africa Children’s Parliament, this paper, which was published in the International Journal of Media, Journalism and Mass Communications (IJMJMC), examines the prospects of multilevel communication and advocacy by children and young people through this initiative. It looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the Children’s Parliament in South Africa, as well as in other African countries, and offers recommendations on how it can be used more effectively as a tool to promote meaningful participation and communication by children.

As explained by the author, the paper seeks to fill a gap in research around child rights, participatory development, and communication studies. “As an intervention to promote the voice of children and youth people, the children’s parliament is a site for exploring multiple communication functions, directions, results and challenges. It provides a platform for an interdisciplinary approach to communication and has potentials for generating insights for the study of cultural communication, children and youth advocacy, children’s media use, and human rights communication. However, there is currently limited attention among communication scholars in exploring this intellectual space for communication research and practice, thereby enhancing the much needed interdisciplinary discourse on child rights, participatory development and communication studies.” The paper therefore seeks to bridge this gap by examining the prospects of the Children’s Parliament as a site for multilevel communication.

Data for the case study is from secondary information, archival records, and direct observation, supplemented with 20 key informant interviews with various partners including government agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare, staff of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, implementing partners such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Debating South Africa and child ambassadors from Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and North West provinces.

To explain the nature and purpose of the Children’s Parliament, the paper states that, "in many African countries, the Children’s Parliament has become a major platform for advocacy, participation, and communication for young people. It is intended to enhance genuine dialogue, debate and public advocacy by children, promote the agency of young people, and impart democratic ethos and skills. It challenges the perception of children as the vulnerable little citizens, with non-consequential communication rights but as full-fledged individuals, who can hold opinions, express opinions and be seen and heard.”

The paper goes on to offer an overview of child participation and its challenges, followed by an overview of how the Children’s Parliament functions in selected African countries as a conceptual basis for the case study on South Africa. In all countries, the Children's Parliament model is shown to be an important approach for communication and advocacy by children and young people. However, the paper identifies some issues and challenges, which include the need to investigate the tangible impact of the initiative. Also, “a critical observation suggests that it is no more than a sporadic engagement which allows children to be seen and heard or an annual jamboree of predominantly 'children of privilege' interacting with national leaders. Although processes for effective representation of the youth population have been developed and instituted, questions need to be raised on the representativeness of the child parliamentarians (Fayoyin, 2016:7)”. In addition, although the councils are child-led organisations, they are initiated and facilitated by adults, which also raises questions on the adult gate keeping tendencies of children’s opinions or the potential for outright manipulation of the process. Overall, the extent to which children’s voices have influenced government policies and programmes is uncertain.

In the main section of the paper focusing on the South African Children’s Parliament, the author examines the following three communication patterns:

1. Lateral communication among young people: This involves the structures and channels of communication among young people involved in the initiative at ward, provincial, and national levels through consultations, feedback reports, and social media. Although there are signs of horizontal communication, allowing young people to mobilise for citizenship engagement and public participation essential for social development, the research shows that there is inadequate internal communication among participants. For example, “[T]he child parliamentarians identified inadequate logistic support as a major hindrance in their lateral communication with other members. This has also hindered their internal mobilization with other young people. Nonetheless, the deployment of digital media is enabling them for real time update and contacts on developments in the communities. Digital connectedness has also led to more “sharing and caring‟ and digital activism of their agenda among themselves.”

2. Upward communication: This deals with how the voice of young people is being heard on social issues and brought to the policy and political domains. In principle, the goal of upward communication is advocacy: how they influence norms, social practices, regulation, resource allocation, political decisions, or policies that affect children in society. Within the domain, the paper explores the extent to which upward communication is in line with traditional patterns of communication or might be perceived as promoting Western values of communication between adults and children. The research demonstrates that the Children’s Parliament has facilitated upward communication, making the voice of young people heard on major public issues, such as forced child marriage, corporal punishment, and safety in schools. However, as stated in the article, “[W]hile it is generally agreed that the child ambassadors are critical to unearthing issues from the local level and bringing to the national, some of the informants complained about lack of implementation of the various children’s declarations." Regarding the promotion of western ideologies of child communication, the paper makes the point that there is no real agreement on whether the Children’s Parliament mechanism reinforces a Western modality of child-adult engagement. The author does, however, acknowledge that the “African cultural code of engagement rarely makes provision for children to hold adults and policy makers accountable”. The requirements for being a member of the Children’s Parliament (e.g., being assertive) and the need to speak to adults and hold them to account are therefore foreign ideas for many African children.

3. Interagency communication: This relates to communication process and modalities among the agencies and institutions involved in the initiative. It describes the current inter-organisational communication patterns and its challenges and how to improve stakeholder consultations and dialogue on the initiative. The research showed that “the initiative is fraught with poor communication processes which affect the motivation and commitment of partners. Key informants identified the major communication weaknesses as limited communication flow for consistent action beyond the parliamentary sittings, lack of transparent information on key events, including the plans for the 2016 children parliament, inadequate consultation at the provincial levels after parliamentary sessions, poor support for child ambassadors to carry out their functions, significant disconnect between activities of the provinces and the national level.”

Some of the recommendations emerging out of the research include:

  • Ensuring that children and young people are heard and seen should not be limited to annual events, but should be integrated into their natural environment and daily activities. There is a need to investigate better ways of achieving a more integrative pattern of meaningful participation and communication.
  • The rhetoric of children's participation tends to suggest that it promotes contrary values to African philosophy of child engagement. It includes expressions like “child-led advocacy”, “putting children at the centre”, “holding adults accountable”, “making children more assertive”, and several others. It would be critical to balance these expressions with those that promote the responsibility of children. It is impossible for participation to be ahistorical and apolitical. Thus, the various communication and participation modalities promoted by development agencies need to be culturally and politically sensitive.
  • The use of digital media needs to be further integrated into the participation agenda of children and young people, especially as it allows for a multimodal approach to communication and child participation, which has significant implications for the traditional notion of participation and communication enshrined in the Children's Parliament.

Email received from Adebayo Fayoyin on March 11 2017, and International Journal of Media, Journalism and Mass Communications website on March 14 2017.