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Environment Human Rights

Blind hopes for children’s participation in climate change

The 2021/2022 rainy season in Malawi will among other things be remembered by the devastating images of houses submerged in water, flooded rivers, and roads that have been cut off. All these stand out as effects of Tropical Storm Ana. The devastating effects of the storm led to the president declaring a state of National Disaster. Apart from rendering families destitute, the storm is reported to have claimed the lives of 46 people, 18 went missing and 206 were injured.[1] Additionally, the storm further affected access to basic public services such as hospitals, and police stations while ten secondary schools were destroyed and seven main roads were rendered impassable.[2]

While life will never be the same for a majority of children whose lives have been affected by the storm, I reflect on how these young victims and children in general still hope for the realisation of the promise of participation in decision-making processes at different levels. This discussion is situated in the context of Malawi’s recent signature of the Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action.[3] Considering that children are the most affected by climate change and their unique position in society, the declaration commits the government to accelerate inclusive, child and youth-friendly climate policies and actions at different levels. Additionally, Article 5 of the Declaration calls for the enhancement of mechanisms for meaningful child and youth participation in decision-making processes.

Vulnerability of children

The effects of tropical storm Ana, where, as I have mentioned before, basic social protection structures such as hospitals and police as well as over 1000 boreholes have been affected, are reminders of the position of Malawi in the Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI). The CCRI ranks countries based on how vulnerable children are to environmental stresses and extreme weather events. According to this index, Malawi ranks among the countries where children are most at risk alongside Tanzania, Mauritania, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.[4]

The CCRI validates that children are the most affected by the devastating effects of climate change because physically, they are less able to withstand and survive the shocks. They are also more at risk of death compared to adults due to diseases that are exacerbated by climate change such as malaria, cholera, and other communicable diseases. Above all, they still have their whole life ahead of them, thus, they are likely to have a lifetime characterized by the vulnerability. These devastating effects not only disrupt their lives but also rob them of their future in different ways.

Despite children being the most vulnerable and in the majority, their participation in decisions that affect them is often compromised. It has often been characterized by decorative and manipulative forms of participation, lack of sustainability and continuity of the participation processes as well as the exclusion of some quarters of children.[5] Besides, the paternalistic perceptions that children are incapable of making their own decisions and the African perception that children are supposed to be seen and not be heard contribute to their absence at the decision-making table. Moreover, children remain to be talked about rather than being talked to, and their participation in big decisions still remains tokenistic.[6]

Raised hope in treaties

In as much as the country has signed the Agreement to provide children a chance to participate in decision-making,[7] one cannot help but wonder what difference this will bring. The question is in light of the many signed agreements and treaties that remain tokenistic engagements that are not interpreted in addressing the needs of children.

Such is the case as the initial hopes for meaningful children participation were raised earlier when Malawi signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). Both provided the right to participation for children through Article 12 and 7 respectively. The same hope continues to be provided through Section 23 (1) of the Malawi Constitution where the best interest of the child takes primary consideration in decisions that affect them. Similarly, hopes were elevated when Malawi promulgated the Child Care Protection and Justice Act 2010 which makes provisions for childcare, protection, child justice; and matters of social development of the child, and other connected matters.[8]

Meaningful participation

If this Declaration, and of course all promises made by governments to children through treaties and declarations are to be meaningful, firstly, the children need to have the necessary information to make informed contributions. Such information has to be in formats that are familiar to the children. Secondly, there needs to be a conscious and deliberate effort to recognize children as agents of change who can communicate their needs and ideas.[9] Furthermore, states have to put in place implementation measures that accompany the signing of these treaties. Most importantly, the implementation of such strategies and efforts needs to have the best interest of the child as a primary consideration as is provided for through Article 3.1 of the CRC and other legal instruments. Unless these measures are deliberately taken, it remains just hope that the right to participate in climate change policy formulation will be achieved through the signing of this Declaration and any other declarations and treaties to come.

Gift Mauluka is a PhD candidate at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.


[1] DoDMA, Malawi: Tropical Storm Ana, Situation Report-2 (2022) < https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/situation_report_15feb.pdf > accessed 11 April 2022

[2] DoDMA 2022, p.3.

[3]UNICEF, ‘Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action <

https://www.unicef.org/environment-and-climate-change/climate-declaration#faq> accessed 14 April 2022

[4] UNICEF, ‘The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index (UNICEF, 2021) < https://www.unicef.org/media/105531/file/UNICEF_climate%20crisis_child_rights_crisis-summary.pdf> accessed 14 April 2022.

[5] Tisdall, E.K & Cuevas-Parra, P, ‘Beyond the familiar challenges for children and young people’s participation rights: the potential of activism,’ (2022) 26 (5) The International Journal of Human Rights 792, 795

[6] Karmen, T, ‘A systematic review of children’s participation in child protection decision‐making: Tokenistic presence or not?’ (2021) 35 (3) Children & Society 395,401

[7] Naomi Kalemba, ‘Malawi commits to putting children’s rights and voices at the forefront of climate action’ UNICEF Press Release (Lilongwe, 13 April 2022) < https://www.unicef.org/malawi/press-releases/malawi-commits-putting-childrens-rights-and-voices-forefront-climate-action# > accessed 13 July 2022

[8] See title of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, 2010 (CCPJA, 2010).

[9] Clark Alison ‘Ways of seeing: using the Mosaic approach to listen to young children’s perspectives’ in Clark, A., Kjørholt and Moss, P. (eds.) Beyond Listening. Children’s perspectives on early childhood services (Bristol: Policy Press 2005) 29,30.

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