Children debate child participation in Child Friendly Cities with mayor

Children discussing child-friendly cities with the Mayor of Postojna at a UNICEF Talk Show.

What forms the basis of a good partnership between children and decision makers? Children and adults debated this and many other questions at a UNICEF-hosted talk show at the annual Eurochild Conference in Opatija on 30 October.

Engaging children and young people is a key element in building child-friendly cities and communities. Therefore, it is fit that when a group of children and young people from Slovenia, Croatia and Ukraine gathered to meet with the Mayor of Postojna, Slovenia, and representatives from UNICEF and the Croatian Union of Societies ‘Our Children’, the topic of discussion was participation in cities and communities.

When asked why children and young people should be listened to, the participants’ answer was clear: because they are citizens just as much as adults are.

“If adults can change their cities because they live in them, we can change our cities, too. We are the future, but we are building the future now,” said Arja, UNICEF Junior Ambassador and member of the Postojna youth council.

If adults listened to children, they could find something that is meaningful for everyone, added Eva, a youth representative from Varaždin, Croatia, who presented the youth council’s innovative advocacy campaign to reduce the weight of heavy school bags.

Trust is key
In Postojna, children and young people are actively involved in the local government’s decision making, which earned the municipality the title of Child Friendly City in 2016. Children and young people meet regularly with the Mayor, Igor Marentič, to discuss their proposals for making Postojna more child-friendly. The latest proposal from children that the Mayor approved was to increase the number of bike lanes in the city.

Successful collaboration requires a dedicated mayor like Igor Marentič. He highlighted the importance of trust: “You must be honest. We shouldn’t lie to children, because lie to them once, and you will lose their trust forever,” he said.

Because the Mayor treats children and young people as equal partners, they understand when a certain proposal cannot be implemented immediately because of other costly priorities, such as improving the accessibility of public spaces, said Arja.

“Adults should open up and say: ‘This is hard, but you can help’. And children should know that adults are struggling and not perfect,” she added.

Looking at the wrong problems
The message of the discussion was clear: When adults define issues on behalf of children, they often make the wrong assumptions about the needs of children and young people. City officials are easily detached from the reality of children and young people, and listening to them offers new perspectives, said Igor Marentič.

An example is safety, which the young people mentioned as an issue that worries them in their cities and communities, ranging from traffic to bullying on the way to school. Adults often do not recognize these problems, said Iva Mandič from the Union of Societies ‘Our Children’, who leads the Child Friendly Cities Initiative in Croatia.

With strong child advocates in the lead and supporting adult allies, several cities participating in the Child Friendly Cities Initiative have improved safety for children and young people. As examples of these actions, Child Friendly Cities Initiative Adviser Louise Thivant mentioned safety walks and recruiting local enterprises to become Safe Points where children and young people can seek help.

Fostering inclusion
Participation can also be a path for children and young people to become change makers. One such young person is 17-year-old Popal, who came to Postojna on his own a year ago, after a three-year unaccompanied journey from Afghanistan. Thanks to efforts of UNICEF and Mayor Marentič, Popal now speaks Slovenian fluently, studies and has a job that helps him support his three younger siblings in Afghanistan.

Learning the local language and participating in the local youth council have helped him to find his place in his new community. He is now a UNICEF Junior Ambassador, advocating for the rights of children in Slovenia.

“I’m really happy that I can help others, as others helped me on the way here. When I help others, I can forget about my own problems,” he said. The next generation of local change makers is clearly in the making.

Learn more about the Child Friendly Cities Initiative in Slovenia.