As I travel through the projects which I am responsible for in India I continue to see those which are built on solid foundations of empowerment and inclusion. Within these, all members of society are assisted to practice their agency and contribute to the decision making processes of their communities. While the projects see success of these ventures with adults it has been identified that opportunities for children and children with disabilities to similarly raise their voices has been lacking. As an attempt to fill this gap some of the projects began to form and support the development of what they term ‘Inclusive Children’s Parliaments’.
These Parliaments are created as a platform for all children, including children with disabilities, to share their grievances and discuss issues pertinent to their own lives and that of their families. This innovate concept therefore promotes the social inclusion of children with disabilities alongside their peers whereby action plans are jointly developed at the end of each session and taken to local government authorities.
As in the regular Government Parliamentary system, 4 ministers, for Social Affairs, Education, Health and Protection along with a Speaker and a Reporter are elected for a period of 2 years. Parliamentarians discuss different issues such as disability, school dropouts, health and hygiene, supporting underprivileged children and issues concerning girls specifically. They pass resolutions, amendments, develop proposals, appeals, and submit petitions based on local issues to the relevant authorities.
During my recent travels to Shillong located in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya, I was highly impressed by one of these groups. Here, members raised the issue of a lack of communication infrastructure on school grounds. One of the elected ministers identified that it was difficult for him to know which classroom to go to without appropriate braille signage and he therefore depended other students without visual impairments to assist him to classes. He expressed that this undermined his freedom and ability to attend classes like other students. After this session, the group took this to their Principal and negotiated for the provision of appropriate signage for all classrooms.
Some other past instances of success have seen Children’s Parliament representatives voicing concerns around inaccessible community infrastructure leading to Government officials then allocating funds to modify schools and community buildings in their area. Another example was the successful request to grant street lighting to the community of a Child Parliament after group members identified that a lack of lighting was compromising the security of school children travelling home late at night after tuition.
It’s needless to say that these groups are equipping the next generation with skills of leadership and influencing practices of inclusion and anti-discrimination. These parliaments are also enabling children with disabilities to raise their voice and campaign for change and betterment of their own lives. As these children grow it is hoped that the lessons learnt and skills acquired through this process equip them to be active participants of the decision making mechanisms of their communities for the entirety of their lives.
*Images courtesy of CBM International