At the end of 2017, REDHNNA, a network focused on advocating for Venezuelan children’s rights, conducted a series of meetings with 233 children between 8 and 17 years of age, who wanted to discuss their rights and to give their opinions regarding several topics of their interest.
Problems and Purpose
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and its General Comment N° 12 (2009), children have the right to participate, be heard and taken seriously in all matters that concern them. As a signatory to the CRC, Venezuela has developed an entire legal framework attached to its principles, in which the following stand out: the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (CRBV, 1999) and the Organic Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (LOPNA, 1998). However, in practice there are few spaces in the country for children to express themselves and advocate for their own rights without adults’ mediation
The inconsistency between what the laws dictate and what was happening in reality, prompted the implementation of several initiatives to promote children’s participation within the country. Thus, between October 2017 and January 2018, the Network for the Human Rights of Children and Adolescents (REDHNNA), carried out several discussions with 233 children between 8 and 17 years of age, from 6 states of Venezuela, to know first-hand the challenges they faced and to understand, promote, and exercise their right to participate in the demand and defense of all their fundamental rights.
Background History and Context
Since 2013, Venezuela has been going through a situation of an all-encompassing, yet slow to onset Complex Humanitarian Emergency (CHE). This situation is characterized by a severe political, economic and social crisis affecting the real possibilities of at least 70% of the population, especially women and children, to achieve well-being and social peace. In early 2018 the annual inflation rate stood at 6,605 %, which translated into a dramatic reduction of the purchasing power of basic goods and services by households, especially those with lower incomes.
Other characteristics of the CHE are the high rates of violence which affect all citizens, but especially children and teenagers. In the 2016 Annual Report published by the Public Ministry, 21,752 victims of intentional homicides were registered, locating a homicide rate of 70.1 per 100 thousand inhabitants; 86.6% of these acts were committed with firearms and 55.48% of the victims (12,069 people) were between 15 and 30 years of age, being the most vulnerable segment of the population. The dismantling of the justice system which diminished its capacity to avoid impunity (90% of crimes go unpunished), the proliferation of criminal gangs that subjugate the population with fear, as well as the weakening of families in their capacity to give protection and citizenship education, are among the factors that contribute to the victimization of children in the country.
Regarding the public health situation, in Venezuela there is no official updated, reliable and accessible data that allows for the identification of the impact of the actions developed by the State. In fact, the current national crisis in terms of hospital infrastructure, personnel, supplies, surgical shifts, and medical equipment prevent health care providers from responding appropriately to the health problems of all people, especially children. The economic difficulties of households translate into food insecurity, which has increased the levels of moderate and acute malnutrition in children and pregnant or lactating women, aggravating diseases and influencing the appearance of others that are preventable under normal circumstances.
Unfortunately, these complex problems do not find solutions in the institutions that should focus on their swift resolutions. Since the administrative reform of the LOPNNA in 2007, there have been frequent changes in the structure of the National Public Administration, which has hindered the consolidation of the National Child Protection System (CPC). Another consequence of the reform was to limit plural and autonomous social participation in the CPC. In Venezuela there are laws in force in which society is recognized as those "community organizations," promoted and financed by the government, leaving out those who do not belong to these categorizations.
This discrimination against independent CSOs has prevented the proper design and implementation of public policies in favor of children, and directly affects their fundamental rights, especially those related to receiving timely information and participating in matters that concern them. However, despite these restrictions, social initiatives persist in promoting the plural and equitable participation of all.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
This initiative was funded by the European Union within the 4-year cooperation agreement #TejiendoRedesInfancia, signed in 2017 with the Latin American and Caribbean Network for the Defense of the Rights of Children and Adolescents (REDLAMYC), a former regional platform which REDHNNA was a part of. The activities of exchange with Venezuelan children were coordinated by REDHNNA and conducted by its members: Community Learning Centers (CECODAP), Don Bosco Houses Network, Fe y Alegría, Luz y Vida Foundation, Prepara Familia, Cátedra de la Paz of Los Andes University, the Childhood and Family Research Center of Metropolitan University (CENDIF-Unimet) and the Judicial Research Institute of the Andrés Bello Catholic University (IIJ-UCAB). They provided human and logistical resources and helped to establish other links with contributors such as the Children’s Rights Council of Chacao Municipality (Caracas), Valles de Momboy University (Trujillo), Technical School “Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho” (Barinas) and Liceo Los Curos (Mérida), who provided physical spaces for the activities.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Among the factors considered by REDHNNA for the selection of participants for the meetings and other activities, were included temporal, geographical, financial, administrative, logistical, and strategic aspects, as well as the capacities of its member organizations. Thus, children were identified and recruited from the communities served by REDHNNA members. Their final selection was based on the child’s willingness, real possibilities, and interest in participating, taking care to consider gender equity where possible.
Due to the profile and type of work of several of REDHNNA organizations, most of the participants came from school environments or community education programs; however, thanks to the support of Don Bosco Houses Network it was also possible to recruit children in alternative care (without parental care). Similarly, with the cooperation of Prepara Familia, a CSO providing assistance to children with chronic health conditions who are treated in the J.M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital in Caracas, a group of these children could be included in the activities. This was done, with the intention of providing a space for expression and for making demands that, in general, was not available to many of the children who participated.
The cities and the profiles of the "childhoods" convened, totaled 233 children from 6 Venezuelan states:
- Mérida, 11/28/2017, 20 adolescents, belonging to the school environment.
- Mérida, 11/29/2017, 49 boys and girls, school setting.
- Barinas, 12/05/2017, 48 boys and girls, school setting.
- Valera, 12/08/2017, 25 boys and girls, school environment.
- Caracas (Miranda), 12/06/2017, 81 boys and girls, school environment and with placement measures in a care entity.
- Caracas (Distrito Capital), 12/14/2017, 10 boys and girls, patients from the Hemodialysis Unit and the Nephrology Service of the J. M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital.
Methods and Tools Used
After an internal deliberative process, REDHNNA and its members decided to carry out a participatory route by conducting a series of face-to-face meetings with children. In these meetings they discussed several categories of rights (Survival, Development, Participation and Special Protection) given the deep effects on the exercise of the rights related, in the context of the aforementioned CHE in which the country was going through.The technical team responsible for organizing every meeting provided a methodological guide previously discussed and built collectively, which the facilitators as a whole could review regarding the guidelines for exchange with children, according to the rights approach, and to guide the dynamics in work tables for each category/categories.
The number and topic of the work tables was chosen by the participants, in line with their interests and the number of attendees at each meeting. After the distribution of children and teenagers in tables, a facilitator trained in the Human Rights of Children, explained to the participants the content of the categories of rights, so that the children could decide amongst themselves, using the method of their preference (consensus, simple majority, sweepstake), which right they would work with.
The dynamic favoring the learning and discussion of rights was called: “Today’s and Tomorrow's Newspaper” which consisted of presenting, in the form of news, the current state of the right selected by the group of children and how they visualized it in the future. The problem prioritized by the participants was selected as the headline and the other problems detected, the secondary news, were ranked in order of importance.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The meetings were held with the purpose of diagnosing, promoting and reinforcing children's participation, and other rights groups, considering the CRC principles of co-responsibility, absolute priority and the best interests of children and adolescents. Using this rights approach, the participation of the attendees was carried out in person and directly, allowing the free choice of the topic, after the participants organized themselves in work tables.
The largest meeting was held in Caracas with the participation of 81 children and teenagers from several communities of the Capital District. As will be described later, the other activity held in Caracas underwent some modifications to adapt it to the profile of those who participated, since they were mostly girls and boys with chronic health conditions and their siblings for which they required special treatment to prevent them from becoming excessively tired.
The number of participants for the first meeting allowed ten work tables to be organized in four categories of rights as follow:
- Participation (4 tables): children could choose between the freedom of opinion and expression, the right to be heard, to participate, and the freedom of assembly or association;
- Survival (2 tables): Children chose between the right to life, to health or to an adequate standard of living;
- Development (2 tables): where they could discuss the right to education, access to information, culture or recreation or the right to rest and play;
- Special Protection (2 tables): Children could decide between the eradication of child abuse, protection of the reputation and honor, protection against sexual abuse, labor exploitation or harmful substances.
After the selection of the rights to be discussed in each table, the assigned facilitator guided the exchange by formulating questions, such as: “What do you think about this right?”, “How do you understand it?”, “Do you think this right is being respected in Venezuela?”, and so on. While they narrated situations that they knew and anecdotes about the exercise or state of the selected right, the participants were choosing the headline of the news and exchanged ideas about how the exercise of that right was currently guaranteed or not (today's newspaper) and how they visualize it in the future (tomorrow's newspaper). These ideas were entered in a entered in a format previously provided, which included a section to list the people or institutions who participants believed should be held accountable for guaranteeing the revised rights. Likewise, each format of the newspaper included a section of related drawings made by the children.
Each group of children selected from among themselves a secretary, who would be the one who would write, who would do the drawings, and who would speak as rapporteurs. Being such a large group, there were some children more outgoing than others. Some, especially the girls, preferred to make the drawings or take notes. However, everyone was always encouraged to express their opinions, respecting their temperaments and personalities.
Regarding the meeting carried out with children with chronic health conditions, since every one of them was immunosuppressed, it was important to avoid exposure to a large group of people and to ensure the activity was as comfortable as possible so that the children could stay in the meeting longer.
There were ten children who formed two tables: in one, rights from the Development category were worked on, and in the other, rights from the Survival category. Some children opted to draw and color, while the rest, helped by the accompanying adults, wrote the news in the newspapers. One of the groups was subdivided into three by their own decision and in all cases they presented their newspapers for today and tomorrow.
At the four meetings held outside Caracas in Mérida, Barinas, and Valera, they slightly adapted the methodology provided by creating four groups: one for each category of rights. Similar to the activities in Caracas, the facilitators, mostly teachers in this case, guided the discussion with questions regarding the previous knowledge that participants could have or their feelings about the current situation of their rights. These activities brought together 142 children and teenagers between 10 and 17 years of age. In general, participants showed great interest and concern and remained engaged in the processes until the end of each meeting.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The majority of participants were almost totally unaware of their rights and the obligations of the State as guarantor or the responsibilities of families and society in this regard. Therefore, the meetings represented an opportunity for most of these children to learn their rights, understand how they can be exercised, and who should be held accountable when these rights are not guaranteed or are violated.
In all the interventions, the impact generated by the financial and economic issues at home, community and schools was considered. Similarly, it was observed how violence is present in many of the communities. Crimes such as the illegal possession of weapons, kidnapping and sexual exploitation were some of the issues raised by many of the boys when talking about protection and how violence is close to them.
Regarding the right to participation, almost all the children stated that it is exercised within limitations. Many did not feel heard and indicated that their mothers, fathers, teachers or other adults were so concerned about the situation in the country that they did not listen to them. Similarly, they identified the figure of the Communal Councils in their areas as a limitation to participation. One result that is worth noting is the fear that everyone expressed about the probability of suffering violence if they wanted to express oneself freely.
Participants also said that they would have liked more activities of this type, where they can express themselves and say what they think about their situation. All of them expressed their desire for a change regarding the exercise of the right to participation, to be valued and their opinions respected.
These activities allowed the documentation from the girls’ and boys’ perspective, in several cases much different from that of adults, in raising awareness about the enforceability of their rights. Although most of the participants were related to school environments or community projects, at least one of the groups was part of an initiative implemented by a mayor's office in the Caracas Metropolitan area, which favored their possibilities of influencing the authorities so that their demands were taken into account.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
At the end of the work table discussions and the consequent elaboration of the newspapers of each group of participants, the presentation of their newspapers and the further discussion in plenary, generated a valuable exchange of points of view which was collected by REDHNNA to include children’s voices in its consequent reviews and reports edited for advocacy purpose. However, the worsening of the Venezuelan crisis, as well as the subsequent conflicts that weakened REDLAMYC internally, did not make possible the continuation of these processes. Still, these initial results serve as a guide and helped to identify a need for REDHNNA and its members to prompt further actions on issues of children participation in Venezuela.
 The CRC was approved on November 20, 1989 in the United Nations General Assembly and constitutes a very important international treaty on Human Rights (HR), which radically transforms the legal and social conception of childhood making imperative the consideration of children and adolescents as subjects of human rights. See: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
 The LOPNA went through two reforms: one administrative in 2007, when it changed to LOPNNA (Organic Law for the protection of boys, girls and adolescents) and other related to the Criminal System of Liability of Adolescents in 2015. Other laws are: Law Approving the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents in Rooms for the Use of the Internet, Video Games and Other Multimedia (2006) and Organic Law on the Right of women to a life free of violence (2007).
 REDHNNA is a partnership of 14 CSOs, educational and community centers, as well as research institutes and human rights defenders, founded and operational since 2006 for the defense and enforceability of the rights of children and adolescents, based on democratic participation, aimed at promoting the Best Interest of the Child inclusively and with openness to dialogue with various actors. For further information: https://www.redhnna.org/
 Hanke, S. and Boger, T. (2018). Inflation by the Decades: 2000s. Johns Hopkins University Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/troubled-currencies-project-site/inflation-by-the-decades-2000s.pdf
 Ministerio Público (2016). Informe Anual de Gestión 2016. See: https://transparencia.org.ve/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Informe-anual-2016-MP.pdf
 REDHNNA (2016). Informe para el Segundo Ciclo del Examen Periódico Universal de Venezuela, en el Período de Sesiones N° 26 del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de las Naciones Unidas. See: https://www.redhnna.org/informes/informe-para-segundo-ciclo-del-examen-periodico-universal-de-venezuela-en-el-periodo-de-sesiones-n-26-del-consejo-de-derechos-humanos-de-las-naciones-unidas.
 REDLAMYC was a network with presence in 19 countries in Latin-America, co-formed by 26 organizations focused on the promotion and defense of the rights of children. Further information: http://redlamyc.org/v1/
 School setting refers to the activities carried out within school facilities, while school environment refers to activities carried out with students outside their schools or classrooms. Although subtle, this distinction helps to understand the differences in the children’s behavior when this change of locations occurs.
REDHNNA (2018). Informe Cierre Encuentros de Participación REDHNNA 2017. https://www.redhnna.org/informes/informe-cierre-encuentros-de-participacion-redhnna-2017
REDHNNA, CECODAP (2017). Tarjetas Encuentros NNA. https://www.redhnna.org/publicaciones/tarjetas-de-derechos