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Amplifying children’s voices across Europe: our participation staff’s visit to Romania

Elaine and Jane from our Policy, Projects & Participation Team headed to Romania in October to work with UNICEF staff in the Bucharest office. UNICEF is looking to develop its own participation work and lead this across Europe, using Romania’s EU presidency as a catalyst for action.

Elaine and Jane shared the Scottish policy and children’s participation context, and Children in Scotland’s approach to participation and engagement. They also supported the UNICEF staff to develop their own action plan to further children’s participation in decision-making across Romania.

Here, Elaine and Jane reflect on their recent Bucharest adventure:

Jane: Now you are home and have had time toconsider our experience, did you enjoy working with the UNICEF staff in the Bucharest office?

ElaineAbsolutely! It was a great opportunity to share our work and learn from others. When you explain your work to others you automatically reflect on your own situation and practice. We also learned about UNICEF’s role in Romania and their work to support the EU presidency early next year.

Jane: I enjoyed being able to take a moment to share our work including the Principles and Guidelines for Meaningful Participation with children and young people. We highlighted some examples of our participation work including: our research for theGeneral Teaching Council for Scotland on what makes a good teacher; Beyond4Walls; First Minister’s Question Time; and our work with our advisory group Changing our World.

Jane: There were lots of great moments on the trip, would you like to share some of your personal highlights?

Elaine:Working with the UNICEF staff was of course the focus of our trip and it was a joy to work with them. On the first day we were pleased that all of the staff attended, not just those whose role involves working directly with children. To us this showed a clear commitment from UNICEF to children’s rights being realised and their participation in decision-making furthered across society in Romania. UNICEF are leading by example.

Jane: Definitely, it was fantastic to work with such a passionate team who were committed to embedding participation throughout their work. The team were very strong in emphasising that participation with children and young people needs to be meaningful and not a tick-box exercise.

Elaine:Another great moment was the lovely host at our hotel, making us huge breakfasts and giving us slabs of amazing cherry cake to take away for lunch every day was definitely a real highlight. And of course the beautiful autumnal park we walked past each day to get to the UNICEF office.

Jane: We definitely met lots of welcoming and generous people in Romania and the cherry cake was a personal highlight! It also proved to be a great icebreaker. Sometimes it’s the little things that help you open up conversations with new people! For example, discussions at lunch helped generate conversations about participation work across Europe, including the upcoming Eurochild conference in Croatia.

Elaine: What do you feel we learned regarding the policy and participation context in Romania?

Jane: I think what I learned was that the biggest challenge for UNICEF is overcoming the perception of children and their role within Romanian society. Challenging and overcoming the norms surrounding children will take time and will be an ongoing process. However, the team are aware of this and are starting to think of some ways to start to make the changes needed.

Elaine: It was great to hear of the progress that has been made around children’s rights in Romania over the past 25 years and impressive strategies and policies have been developed in recent years. However, there seems to be a lack of infrastructure to ensure these policies and strategies are implemented. The laudable aims do not seem to filter down to directly impact on children and families and there appears to be a real challenge in affecting cultural change. 

Jane: What have you learned about children’s lives/rights in Romania?

Elaine: I was surprised to hear just how high the rates are of children living in poverty in Romania (more than 40%), how many children are not in education and how low the rates of literacy are for these reasons. These are huge challenges.

Jane: Before we went to Romania there was a referendum on altering the legal definition of the family in the Romanian Constitution. Low turnout meant that this did not happen. However, what this highlighted was the very different contexts in which we are operating.

Elaine: A couple of other things came us a surprise to us, didn’t they?

Jane: Yes, I was also really surprised to learn that the age of criminal responsibility in Romania is 14 which contrasts with Scotland where it is 8 (set to rise to 12). It was important to highlight that Scotland is on its own journey in terms of children’s rights and that there are always areas for improvement.

Elaine:The weather was a lovely surprise with temperatures almost 20 degrees every day. The UNICEF staff were surprised when we were not wearing coats, but we explained that this was pretty much as warm as Edinburgh gets in our summer!

Jane: How do you think sharing our work in Scotland will help influence UNICEF’s work in Romania and across Europe?

Elaine: We are lucky in Scotland that we do have closer relationships with and better access to decision-makers than many other countries. But the UNICEF staff considered our work and practices and were of course able to reflect on similarities and differences and thus how they can take things forward I their own context. 

So, final thoughts on the experience?

Elaine: Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I guess the images I have in my head of Romania are of the infamous children’s orphanages. But for me these ghosts can now exorcised. Romania is a country on the up. They have worked hard on realising human and children’s rights and UNICEFcontinues to work hard for every child.  There is definitely more that unites us than divides us.

Jane: The experience was a brilliant way to open up dialogue about participation and to explore, reflect and share what it looks like in other contexts. Everyone is on a journey in terms of where they are in participation. Sometimes it’s important to stop, communicate with others and find out how we can help each other forward. This will ultimately help us to ensure that children’s voices are heard and acted upon.

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