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Helping Children Find Their Voice
Thirteen-year-old Yi Yuanyuan led her language class recently, telling in English about her weekend and trying to get her classmates to participate in the discussion.

Yi's attempt at teaching is all part of the Wild Duck program at Yuyang Middle School, a private school in Tianjin, which encourages students to actively participate in school.

Each student must take turns giving a presentation or lesson.

The students here take it seriously and thoroughly prepare for lessons just as teachers would.

The Wild Duck program encourages children to learn on their own, instead of passively listening to teachers just as wild ducks must look for their own food and not wait to be fed by people.

Encouraging students to become independent goes beyond having them lead classes, they also hold elections to vote in class leaders. Each is encouraged to run for a position and sell their own administrative policy to their classmates.

Children's Rights

These types of programs are still rare in China. Getting children involved in society and exploring societal issues currently only takes place through families, in school, and in the community, according to experts at an international workshop on Chinese children's participation which was held over the weekend by the children's department of the All-China Women's Federation and Save the Children (SC) UK.

"It feels so good to take part in these kinds of activities," said Yu Yi, who was at the forum. The 15-year-old student from the Beijing No 8 High School represented Chinese children in May at the UN Children's Forum.

"To have others listen to you and to be able to make decisions is the best description I can find for children's participation, which completely changes our roles and makes us see the importance of having the right to choose our own way of life."

Yu represented tens of millions of Chinese children in a celebration of their rights at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), with the help of a public awareness campaign over the past two years by the China Program of Save the Children UK.

The rights of children to be involved in decisions that concern their lives, to give their opinions, and to have their voices heard, are all included in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which was endorsed by China in 1991 and by nearly all countries in the world.

Save the Children UK has focused on knowledge, learning and understanding the Convention on the Rights of the Child through training, publication and other activities in China.

According to Kate Wedgwood, China Program Director of Save the Children UK, the projects are varied and the opportunities for participation are diverse.

It Begins at Home

In East China's Anhui Province a community development project in rural and urban areas has children helping to run a local library and holding a regular children's forum. In Yunnan Province in Southwest China, children and teenagers have been involved in community research on anti-trafficking projects.

Currently in China, children have participated in decision-making through three outlets -- families, schools, and communities.

While sometimes a child's participation may extend to society or even the international level, families are still the main arenas for children.

"Unless children's roles in family decision-making is given serious consideration, neither adults nor children will learn the necessary skills for children's meaningful participation in the wider society," said Judith Ennew, an international consultant for the Center for Family Research at the University of Cambridge.

The traditional one-way communication in Chinese families, where parents should only listen grandparents and children should obey parents, hinders the development of a child's personality, some experts have said. Often, children's voices are ignored and they are not allowed to participate in family decision-making.

Children need to be able to express their own opinions and make decisions for themselves, experts add.

Children under the age of six should play more games to increase their mental perceptions and become more sociable, said He Ling, a psychology expert at the China Children's Activity Center.

For children between seven and 16 years old, more interactive communication must take place between parents and children so children can become more confident and realize their own values, experts add.

Role of Schools

In China, schools are the main source of socialization for children and the principle location where children learn about making decisions for their own lives.

In a rural primary school in Simao in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, schoolmaster Chen Deming is trying to create a school centered on teaching children to speak up for themselves. Two years ago he encouraged teachers to hold group discussions with students and really listen to their concerns.

Students who board at this school have set up their own commission which is responsible for feeding students, housing and transportation home.

Meanwhile, in Anhui Province a program for children has greatly benefited students, said Gao Weijun, an assistant at Plan International, a program in Jiaxian County.

"Our program focuses on rural children. It trains children how to manage the books at their community library and children make up the rules for borrowing and returning books," he said.

"They are tremendously responsible. They even urge their mothers and fathers to return books they have borrowed on time."

Besides managing the library, children also take part in other activities in the community, said a representative from Anhui Province. There is currently a children's theatre that gives performances to the community. A small broadcasting organization that conducts regular broadcasts to villagers also has children's participation. Most importantly, the community has a consultative committee of experts on children which hears concerns from young people.

Across the country, many cities are working to put children in the spotlight.

In Shanghai, the "For Children" forum has been held for three years. In the forum, children can appraise the research and policies in the city regarding children. In Central China's Hunan Province, the "Little Masters in the New Century" event is held each year on June 1, Children's Day, where children chose a theme, plan, and review work with the help of adults.

Child Development

China's programs for children cover a broad range of issues, not only decision-making, but also child development, independence, communication between children and adults, and children's social responsibility, said Joachim Thesis, a consultant for Children's Rights from Save the Children Sweden.

China has made strides in realizing the importance of children's rights and healthy mental development, he said.

"Participation is a process. Even if you read hundreds of accounts of children's participation, you have to start at the beginning with each new group of children," said consultant Ennew. "Participation is a gradual evolution in which children and adults learn and practice mutual respect, through trial and error. It takes time and patience on both sides."

(China Daily October 30, 2002)

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