Children exercise their right to be heard

Hong Kong still lacks sufficient channels for children to exercise their right to participate and be heard, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 3:13pm

Twelve-year-old Alicia So Yung-ting reckons she gets short shrift from grown-ups. Her school doesn't provide a channel for students to express their ideas and her parents tend to brush aside her wishes. All in all, adults don't pay much attention to her views.

"My parents usually ignore my opinions," she says. "I've told them many times the tutorial centre I am attending is useless; it just gives me homework. But they force me to go."

Then there's the matter of playing the piano. She wants to practise at night, but her mum forbids it because she's afraid it will disturb her dad.

Last month, Alicia got a rare opportunity to voice her views when she joined 31 other members of the Junior Chief Executives of Hong Kong programme in presenting a mock policy address to government officials. Planners and policymakers would do well to take greater heed of such submissions. They only have to recall how Scholarism, the student pressure group led by 15-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung, fired up widespread protests that eventually forced a U-turn in plans to introduce national education to schools.

As the world marks Universal Children's Day on Tuesday, children's rights campaigners point out that Hong Kong still lacks channels for children to exercise their right to participation, one of four basic tenets enshrined in the United Nations' convention on the rights of the child.

Hong Kong is affluent enough to provide a security net that generally ensures children's rights to survival, development and protection, "but children's voices are not respected", says Irene Chan Man-tuen, chief executive of the Hong Kong Committee for Unicef.

"According to the UN definition, a child is anyone aged from zero to 18 years old. For such a large group of people, there must be a wide range of voices. The government might send consultation papers to schools to ask for feedback. But the papers are not written in child-friendly language. Even I have difficulty understanding such papers. There's no way children will read them. For policy initiatives that affect children, they must be given a chance to voice their views," she says.

So what do Hong Kong children want? Perhaps not surprisingly, many wish they did not have to study in pressure-cooker environments.

Alicia feels strongly enough to include a proposal in the Junior Chief Executives' policy address to abolish school rankings.

"Ranking promotes unhealthy competition and stresses out students," she says.

Anson Lam Cheuk-yin, 12, included a plan to rein in homework after he conducted a poll of 430 students and found that most felt they were burdened by too many assignments. "I set out a step-by-step homework system under which Primary One and Two pupils must not be given more than three assignments a day. The amount of homework allowed increases as the student progresses to senior forms."

He appreciates the opportunity that Junior Chief Executives presents since his school discourages students from expressing their views. "The discipline master is intimidating. He equates ideas with criticisms against the school."

Similarly, Anson says, "My geography teacher does not want us to ask any questions. She thinks answering students' questions will take up precious teaching time."

Every couple of years, the Boys and Girls Clubs Association selects 32 students who join current affairs workshops and hold regular meetings to thrash out proposals for the Junior CE policy address.

"The [Junior CE] scheme was launched in 2002 in response to the lack of channels for children to make their voices heard. And over the past few years, we have also launched other empowerment programmes like the little financial secretary and little district councillor programmes," says association strategy and development officer Zenbi Ho Ka-yan.

It's a hands-on affair, she says, with students staging their own press conference to introduce their proposals. "From writing scripts to fielding reporters' questions, they have to do everything on their own."

Junior CE is among several initiatives designed to help youngsters take a greater role in deciding on issues that affect their well-being.

Phoebe Lee Chung-yan, 15, became a spokeswoman for teenage affairs last summer when she and other students began hosting a weekly RTHK radio programme called The Voices of Youth.

Launched by Unicef, the shows give a platform for teen concerns. Phoebe, who tapped her classmates for ideas, has covered topics such as unwanted pregnancies and whether students should engage in romance.

Other schemes such as Unicef's Young Envoys programme can have a galvanising effect. An eye-opening visit in July to Dienbien in Vietnam prompted 15-year-old Siu Yau-king to set up a charity for underprivileged children on her return.

"I came across malnourished, orphaned children, a boy crippled by polio and 15-year-old girl who went to a centre for a pregnancy check-up. I am lucky as I can pursue my dreams. But that girl has to be somebody's wife and mother at just 15. My charity - Smile Indeed Unite - will provide services like drama workshops and leadership camps for children in need."

It's a big change from 16 years ago when the Young Envoys first began. "Participants were not as assertive and outspoken," Chan says. "But students today are not afraid to express their views and fight for their rights."

This bold spirit may mirror the growing assertiveness in Hong Kong civil society, but it's also fuelled by various empowerment schemes such as the Children's Council, an NGO initiative set up in 2003, and Kids' Dream, a child-led venture launched six years ago to conduct advocacy work through school talks and workshops for underprivileged children.

Similar to the Junior CE scheme, the Children's Council brings together 60 youngsters aged from 11 to 18 each year to present motions on issues of concern to Legco. Participants are divided into three groups, each of which must gather material for a 3,000-word report before meeting legislators and government officials to discuss their proposals.

If policymakers had some student input there might have been a more effective curriculum for the new Diploma of Secondary Education, says Vicky Lee Wai-yee, 17, a council member in 2010. "We are the ones who know best what we need. But no one asked our opinions before introducing the new senior academic structure in 2009. It's our education that is at stake," says Lee. "Urban planning also affects children a lot. What facilities should be included in a playground? Which districts lack amenities for children. We know the answers to all these [questions]."

Like other signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Hong Kong is required to submit a report on the state of children's welfare every five years. The next report is due in 2014, but non-government groups around the world are already busy preparing their own assessments for discussion in Geneva next year.

Kids' Dream is the only local children's organisation that will hand in a shadow report, says Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights, a partner in the Dream team. "We will send children as representatives to Geneva next year," she says.

Amid a widening protest culture in the city, social science student Jason Lau Wai-kit has introduced several discussions points in the shadow report.

"Police used pepper spray to break up a sit-in in 2011. The incident caused a lot of controversy as an eight-year-old child was affected by the spray. The police should review demonstration guidelines to take into account child protesters," the 18-year-old says. "There should be special protection measures in place in future cases when police run into child protesters."

But for more consistent efforts to protect children's rights, Wong calls for the establishment of a Children's Commission

"There are 1.1 million children in Hong Kong [out of a total population of 7.07 million]. Although the elderly constitute only 11 per cent of the population, there is an Elderly Commission.

"While Hong Kong children seem to be pampered and enjoy all kinds of material comforts, the widening gap between rich and poor means many children are scraping by," Wong says. "The exam-oriented culture means many children are deprived of the right to play and rest … there should be a commission that focuses only on children's issues."