Children’s civic engagement was promoted in the Mombasa County in Kenya through collaborative planning and public hearings, emphasizing the imperative role of children’s voices in the country’s development.
Problems and Purpose
The Kenyan Constitution (2010) guarantees every citizen a right to participate and be involved in government decisions and planning from the grassroots level. Before laws, policies, budgets and programs can be passed, there must be a democratic process that involves public participation and input before finalization. Most of the time, adult input is received without including children’s voices. To address this exclusion from decision-making processes, the Kenya Alliance for the Advancement of Children (KAACR) set a process in motion to work with children between the ages of 8 and 18 and enable them to add their voices to conversations of national concern. More specifically, the objective of the initiative was to include children from Mombasa County in national development issues and empower them to be civically engaged in their communities.
To achieve this, activities were organized to place children at the center of engagement activities in two phases: planning and preparation during the 2015 Pwani Children Voices (PCV) Conference  (organized with international children’s rights organizations), and the resulting participation of children at the Mombasa County Assembly chambers and engagement with the Speaker of the Assembly and committee members.
Background History and Context
While Kenya is a democratic country, communities have yet to fully appreciate citizen participation and their influence in democratic development processes. Even more, the participation of children in their own development has lagged in the country and has largely been championed by civil society organizations (CSO) that recognize children’s participation in national decision making is imperative in upholding the Kenyan Constitution. To this end, CSOs often lead sensitization workshops and train children and communities on citizen participation in community development.
One such CSO, the Kenya Alliance for the Advancement of Children (KAACR), works in collaboration with different state and non-state stakeholders to constitutionally enhance children’s voices and participation by monitoring the implementation and dissemination of child-focused government policies (e.g., The Children Act 2001, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Constitution). As part of their dissemination efforts, KAACR established Child Rights Clubs (CRC) in schools where children are trained to speak out and participate in democratic processes, including at the Kenya National Children Assembly (KNCA). This provides a platform for children to participate in democratic processes such as elections, representation, and governance. Over time, concerns aired through CRCs in schools indicated that despite opportunities provided in the legislation, there was limited space for child participation in development, and where provided, it tended to have little meaning or influence over the issues affecting them.
In August 2015, an opportunity arose and space was provided for children to make their participation felt during the PCV Conference, organized by Child Rights Civil Societies in the region. The annual conference brings together children from several counties in the Coastal region to discuss matters affecting them. It culminates on the last day when they meet invited leaders who listen to them and their proposals for development and child protection.
As one of the major objectives of the PCV Conference is to hold dialogue sessions between national- and county-level leaders and the citizenry—including children—the event represented an opportunity to close the participation gap that exists for so many Kenyan children. In particular, through the PCV Conference, children would make suggestions and provide input directly to decision makers, in hopes of informing development decisions based on their own needs and rights.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The KAACR is a membership organization and works through child rights networks that it establishes in counties across Kenya. In pursuing its mission to enhance children’s and citizens’ capacity to hold leadership and duty bearers accountable on policies, budgets, and promises made during campaigns on development, KAACR played a key role in the initiative. It spearheaded the process as the originating organization as well as the secretariat to the Mombasa County Child Rights Network, and mobilized and arranged meetings for the planning and execution of the process.
Other CSOs, including Compassion International, SOS Children Village, WEMA Center, Solidarity with Girls in Distress (SOLGIDI), Mji wa Salama, Action Aid International, World Vision International, the CRADLE, Plan International, KUIMIRIRA CBO, CLEAR, and Solidarity with Women in Distress (SOLWODI) were part of the planning committee and supported children financially to attend the conference.
Government departments, especially the Ministry of Children, Education and Youth, were instrumental in providing permission and mobilizing children and youth to participate in the PVC Conference, giving technical support and accompaniment.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Every year, a Children Planning Committee (CPC) is formed by about 30 children between the ages of 8 and 18 who are identified from the existing Child Rights Clubs and from the Kenya National Children Assembly (KNCA). The CPC, in consultation with the adults, plans the conference: they determine a theme, venue, guest list, activities, and selection criteria for the children who will participate in the conference.
Child participants from different parts of the country are then selected. Some are elected by their peers (either in a CRC or at the KNCA) and selected in alignment with to the 2/3 gender rule (Kenyan Constitution, 2010) considering children with disability and from special circumstances (e.g., street dwellers, children homes, or rehabilitation centers) through the support and facilitation of different organizations.
Methods and Tools Used
The following methods were used:
Collaborative Planning: Joint and parallel planning meeting between children and adults ensured that time was redeemed and there was no duplication of information. Overall, KAACR worked closely with all stakeholders (CSOs, government leaders) to ensure smooth running and implementation of the process.
Lobbying and Advocacy: This included a session organized with elected officials during the conference, and the presentation of a memorandum to the speakers of the assemblies.
Public Hearing: Child participation in the agenda formulation with the Members of the County Assemblies (MCA) developed ownership of the process by the children.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
During conference planning
Children had their own planning committee while adults had theirs. The CPC had an adult who was available for consultation and guidance when needed. After the children met, select members of their committee came to brief the Adults Committee of their plans and to integrate the adults’ plan into theirs. Issues discussed included venue of the function, chief guests, leaders to be invited, and the program for the event.
During the conference
In August 2015, 200 participants (including 116 children aged between 8–18 years, teachers, and adults) from four counties of the coastal region (Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, and Taita Taveta) came together for the annual Pwani Children Voices Conference. Amongst them were children from the Kenya National Children Assembly (KNCA), which is comprised of children leaders from all Kenya’s counties. During the conference, children noted that over the years they had prepared memoranda to their leaders, but no concrete response had been made towards their views and proposed solutions. Therefore, they felt a need to receive concrete commitment from the County government, MCAs, and national government leadership to support and implement the conference’s views and resolutions and to work with children leaders.
During the conference, the KNCA met and discussed some of their hindrances towards achieving their mandate, which included not being provided space to hold their meetings or air their views to relevant leaders. Children from different counties suggested that it would be good to meet and work with the Members of the County Assemblies (MCAs) in their respective counties to create space and opportunities for further interactions and participation. The plan was to write a common letter or memorandum to the Speakers of the Assemblies requesting to be allowed to use the assembly chambers for meetings during holidays as well as a request for support and mentorship from them and to listen to the deliberation they had during the PCV Conference.
KAACR and Action Aid Kenya guided the children in the process of preparing the memorandum. KAACR requested through a letter to the Speaker of the Mombasa County Assembly and the Committee on Children and Education to grant children an audience during the Conference, which was accepted and held on the second day of the 3-day conference. Children met and agreed on what they needed to deliberate on and identified who to represent them in the deliberations. Fifteen children presented the memorandum to the Speaker of the Mombasa County Assembly and the chair of the Children and Education Committee of the Assembly.
Different organizations facilitated the selection of children from counties [WK1] and presented children with a theme for the conference which was decided through an earlier planning meeting between children and stakeholders in the conference planning committee. The children used this theme to identify issues affecting them in the counties they come from and consolidate this during the conference. At the conference, children were categorized in counties to discuss the theme further with reference to the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and develop a consolidated write-up on the real issues affecting them. They also identified key questions/statements to be asked or presented to the leaders during the conference day and key speakers for the county.
These key spokespersons prepared the memorandum that was given to the Speaker of the Mombasa County Assembly.
During the hearing with the Mombasa County Assembly
During the meeting with the Speaker of the Mombasa County Assembly, the Education and Children Committee and the children leaders concluded that a designate spokesperson for the children would present the memorandum and say a few remarks after the welcome by the speaker. During a free session, children would air their views and concerns and get answers from the leaders.
The discussion’s main agenda was to request for an opportunity to use the Assembly Chambers for quarterly meetings, request for mentorship, and collaboration on development issues which affected children in the county. This agenda was set by children during the planning and preparation meeting with the County Assembly with guidance from KAACR and Action Aid Kenya and communicated to the Assembly’s Speaker and Chair. This was done so children have ownership, having been fully in charge of the process.
Children raised pertinent questions to the leaders and got some answers, including the following:
Q: Give us a brief on how the account assembly works every day:
A: The assembly meets every day from Tuesday to Thursday, on Tuesday and Thursday they meet in the afternoon while on Wednesday they meet the whole day. Mondays and Fridays are committees’ sitting days.
Q: What strategies have leaders put in place to curb land grabbing by rich people of school compounds as there are no longer children play areas in the schools and community?
A: The national government, together with the county government, are working together to ensure that all the schools get title deeds which will ensure that the school has ownership of the land it’s built on.
Q: When the budget is prepared, how come children are not given an opportunity to provide input and give their views? Example: you have said you are going to build more nursery/pre-schools for children and a lot of money was put in it, but if we had gotten a chance to give our views, I think it would have been better to equip the current schools and employ more teachers for the children.
A: That is true, but many times the planning is done during school time and this may create a conflict on their rights i.e. denying one for another. But with the now new working relationship it will be more easier to get the children’s views henceforth.
Q: As children leaders, it’s important that there is a place for us to hold our quarterly meetings; we are therefore asking for permission to use the Assembly Hall for our meetings. The KNCA is structured in the same way as the Assembly with the president/governor and all the ministers.
A: The speaker made a verbal agreement with children and signed the memorandum children had come with in response to their query. It was agreed that the children assembly will use the chambers for their meetings every holiday so long as they communicate in advance though their leaders.
It was not easy for leaders to respond to some of these questions, especially concerning involvement of children in budget-making process. They said children were young and, thus, may not understand the budgetary process, and that it was tedious and would take a lot of time from them and their studies. But the children insisted that they were part of the citizens impacted and their views should be sought after and included in the budget process. Children are always discussing development issues in their schools especially the KCA, which is a children leadership organization.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
As a result of the children’s meaningful participation through the PCV Conference, the following outcomes have been achieved:
Opening up of formal democratic institutions
The Mombasa County Assembly (CA) now has a memorandum with children leaders (members of the Kenya Children Assembly Leaders) to use the Assembly Chambers during their sessions. Further, children are now allowed to attend CA sessions at the Public Gallery. Beyond this, the memorandum opened a door for many other learning institutions to use the Public Gallery as a learning space about how the County Assembly and Parliament sessions and proceedings are conducted in Mombasa.
During school holidays, the KNCA is given an opportunity to sit in the Assembly Chambers and use it for their sessions (e.g., sitting on the Speaker’s chair, have Sergeant at Arms processions). They also get to report their deliberations during the PCV Conference with the county leadership.
Child-friendly policy changes
Mombasa County incorporated some of the children’s views in the Mombasa County Child Care Act 2016, in which they have proposed employing teachers and equipping the daycares/nurseries alongside the new schools they are building.
Building relationships and opportunity for mentorship
In opening space for children to participate in democratic processes directly with adults and elected leaders, relationships of trust and respect were built with children, representing an opportunity for mentorship by adults and leaders and for ongoing mutual learning.
Towards children’s participation in county budgeting
Having achieved most of the children’s agenda and addressed most questions, the key pending issue remains allowing children to participate by making input in the county budget. The participatory process by which this could be done is still inaccessible, as the government issues very short public notice, holds the meetings during school hours, and fails to present documentation with sufficient time to enable adequate preparation and scrutiny by adults, let alone children. Through the conference, children— especially in child rights clubs—are able to demand accountability for government money sent to schools for free primary education and other votes by school principals through the creation of accountability boards. Lobbying to give children an opportunity to contribute in county budgets is ongoing.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The following lessons can be drawn from the experience:
Children as active citizens and agents of change
This experience reinforces that children, when given opportunity, can be agents of their own change. It is a reminder that all members of a community have a role to play in community development. Mombasa County representatives, including the County Assembly, appreciated that children could be able to express themselves in a thoughtful, constructive manner, recognizing their potential in contributing to development and fighting for their own rights.
This is particularly significant in the Kenyan context, where the notion that “children are to be seen and not heard” has been engraved in people’s minds and character. Communities do not expect children to have anything to say or to speak before elders. Children are told what to say, to accept decisions without questioning. Having children believe in themselves and have confidence that they have something to say and contribute has taken a long time to achieve for the few who get the chance to join clubs in schools (like CRCs, drama, or journalism) where they are supported to express themselves and demand their rights. This serves as the initial building blocks of a sense of citizenship, which is necessary to make the instruments and conventions protecting children’s right a reality in their communities.
In terms of attitudes towards children’s participation, on the one hand, contributions are at times still taken with a lack of seriousness, are frowned upon, or are viewed as entertainment. Yet, there is now more tolerance of children in the public sphere and issues of children taken more seriously overall.
The importance of meaningful and early engagement
Planning and coordination of the process was well-executed. This involved all levels of the process, including how the children prepared the memoranda and planned for the lobbying to widen their interaction and participation in governance. The planning and strategic mobilization of CSOs brought children together and gave them an opportunity to raise their voices and enabled them to meet and share their memorandum with their leaders. The Mombasa County government played a big part in allowing children to meet with the County Assembly and giving them audience.
Challenge of working collaboratively
The biggest challenge was rallying partners (CSOs) towards a common agenda, explaining and lobbying them to understand the reason why child participation is important in democratic and governance processes. This was overcome once they understood the importance of the process, and had buy-in. They took up the process, becoming the biggest advocates of creating this space for children.
Children’s meaningful participation is a long-term struggle
While further improvements are required to create space for children in public participation (e.g., budgeting, informing laws and policies), experiences such as the PCV Conference represent important, albeit small, steps. Getting children to sit at the decision-making table and have their voices heard has been a long-term and challenging process. Taking a long view enables KAACR and other CSOs to continue pursuing and supporting this goal.
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. (2019). The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child [OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 1990]. Retrieved from https://www.achpr.org/legalinstruments/detail?id=46
County Assembly of Mombasa. (2017). The Mombasa County Child Care Act, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.mombasaassembly.go.ke/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/The-Mombasa-County-Child-Care-Act-2016.pdf
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 Children’s Voices was started by “Children for Children,” a UK-based charity organization with the aim of giving children a voice, celebrating children’s creativity, and empowering them to educate other children. This conference is organized by children worldwide and because of its popularity, it has been simultaneously held in many other countries across the globe. The celebrations have been conducted in Kenya annually since the year 2001 and in Coast province since 2005.
*This case was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of J. Landry & R. Garbary.