The many parliaments of children - not just Greta and school strikers, but actual and effective in India

A still from “Power to the Children” - click on image or  here for trailer

A still from “Power to the Children” - click on image or here for trailer

Last week saw the latest wave of youth climate strikes, and culminating in another stark and compelling speech from Greta Thunberg (see full embed at the end of this post) in Vienna. Her words there sum up the powerful challenge from this generation to older elites, literally stealing and destroying the future:

Politicians one second say climate change is very important, it is the most important topic and we are going to do everything we can to stop it. And the next second they want to expand airports, build new coal power plants and motorways. And then they fly off in a private jet to attend a meeting on the other side of the world.

News that Thunberg will be taking a year off school is no surprise - indeed, her oft-proclaimed sense of urgency about climate breakdown probably demands that.

But we're wondering about the next stage of youth activism - the more substantive and deliberative forms it can take. The idea that children and youth - super-informed and with an acute sense of a worsening future - should have a strong or even leading voice in responding to global crises is strong in the culture at the moment

Our sisters and brothers in Denmark’s Alternativet are even pulling this idea into their campaign ads for the next Danish General Elections, with their simulation of kids in a political tv forum, talking about their future (see embed to the left, and the blurb [Google translated]: “If we are to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to fulfil their dreams of the future, then adults must take responsibility for the globe, now and then. Vote the greenest for the general election” (see our blog this week on the Alternativet campaign).

Youth parliaments have been a global phenomenon for a while now - the UK and European youth parliaments are active. But we were struck by the ground-level phenomenon of Children’s Parliament’s in India. It’s brought to us by a new documentary called Power To The Children (the trailer is available at the start of this blog).

From an interview with its maker, Anna Kersting:

Power to the Children is about children fighting for their rights. With the help of non-governmental organizations [NGOs], they’ve set up many Children’s Parliaments in India. Small human rights organisations initiated this by going to the villages and telling children about their rights, especially their right to education, and about democracy, which unfortunately children were unaware of.

Once children understand these concepts, [the NGOs] help them to set up a parliament in which they elect their own ministers. They hold weekly meetings in the villages to discuss their problems and how to solve them. In many villages, they’ve already solved water and electrical supply problems, environmental issues, stopped child marriage, and made sure all the children go to school.

How did you learn about the Children’s Parliaments, and what made you want to share this story?

I was about to do a documentary about child labor in the cotton fields in India when I first heard about the Children’s Parliaments. I attended the first Congress in Chennai back in 2011, where they were about 250 children gathered in a school campus, discussing their problems and making action plans. From early morning to late in the evening, those children were engaged in many discussions about the issues that were relevant to them and they planned campaigns.

Afterwards I went to visit some villages and saw they weren’t only talking, they’re really changing their lives. I was so impressed that I wanted to do a film about it.

How have the featured villages and communities changed?

Many villages have environmental issues. They are all covered with plastic waste. This is one of the main issues in all Children’s Parliaments across the country. Children are cleaning their villages every week. Villages are slowly changing as adults begin to engage with these activities too. In the villages with Children’s Parliaments, there’s no longer child marriage because the children have stopped it. 

Another issue they are working to address is domestic violence. Children have been campaigning to raise awareness about alcoholism and convince the government, who own all the stores that sell alcohol, to close them. In some villages the campaigns have been successful. In one of the villages shown in the film, the head of the village supported the children and set up a rehabilitation center. Child labor is another issue often present.

What makes Children’s Parliaments so effective?

The children speak from their own experience at home. Like with alcoholism, generally, many children don’t talk about it, although the issue affects them. The wonderful thing is that at the Children’s Parliaments they talk about it and many other challenging things. They listen to each other with a lot of empathy, and most importantly, they discuss what can be done.

…There have been conversations with the United Nations to set up a World’s Children Parliament in order to connect and support the more than 100,000 initiatives that exist across the globe.

We’ll watch the latter developments with interest. Meantime, here’s Greta’s speech to the Viennese “adults in the room” (as you can see):