By Patricio Cuevas-Parra, Director, Child Participation and Rights, World Vision International
On March 1st, the international community observes Zero Discrimination Day to honour and celebrate the right of each person to realise their rights fully and live a fulfilled life. By marking this day, we seek to raise awareness of everyone’s right to be treated equally and with dignity. Unfortunately, we still need a day to remind us of this basic right since discrimination, intolerance, and inequality remain unresolved issues that lead to the unjust treatment of individuals due to their particular social identities.
On Zero Discrimination Day 2020, I would like to focus on the discrimination that children and young people experience when realising their right to participate and be listened to. Rooted in the principle that all humans are born equal, girls and boys are full human beings entitled to equal rights the same as any individual is, and they must be treated with the same dignity and rights based on their common humanity. However, a considerable body of research shows that discrimination is manifested in complex and multidimensional forms based on children’s age, gender identity, ability, race, ethnicity, and/or social class, amongst other categories. Children, like adults, are not a homogeneous group since they are embedded in an intersectional social structure where they have diverse experiences that define the inequalities that can affect them as a result of their social identities.
In order to explore, understand, and provide recommendations to address these issues, I am conducting research in Brazil with my colleague Kristina Konstantoni from the University of Edinburgh to identify how inequality, discrimination, and violence intersect with social identities that are closely connected to the limiting factors that prevent girls and boys from participating equally in society. In order to explore children’s perceptions, we asked child participants whether their identities have had an impact on their lives and specifically on the outcomes of their participatory rights.
A clear commonality across these interviews was that children often felt discriminated against and excluded based on their skin colour, Afro hairstyle, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and age. They also pointed out that discrimination was found across all the spaces they live and interact in, including schools, the community, and at home. They reflected that children experienced prejudicial attitudes from both adults as well as other children. Participants in our study reported that children bullied, harassed, or excluded their peers due to their appearance, gender, class, and how well they fit within the mainstream society and culture. These accounts echo a large body of literature that signals that children exhibit power differences based on class, age group, gender, ethnicity, linguistic skills, and popularity, which altogether determine complex relationships between children themselves.
When we asked the children how these discriminatory attitudes had an impact on their opportunities to participate, they said that discrimination generated a permanent feeling of fear, isolation, and despair that prevented them from participating. Similar findings were observed when I conducted a study in Lebanon several years ago. We noted that the lack of equal opportunities for children to participate was influenced by social identities (e.g. gender, disability, nationality, or refugee status) rather than a lack of interest by children to engage in decision-making processes in both private and public settings.
These experiences reveal a clear pattern of social division within children along race, age, class, and gender identities, where girls and boys, white and Black, rich and poor are valued differently according to their assigned roles in society. Unfortunately, in order to build a sense of identity, children tend to group themselves based on some common ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic connections. However, this implies that other groups of children are excluded, and power is reflected in who has the predominant views and who are discriminated against.
In light of these experiences, relationships between children themselves are complex and interlinked, whilst being extremely unequal and unfair due to discriminatory practices. Thus, today, on Zero Discrimination Day, let’s challenge the prejudices and stereotypes faced by girls and boys and mobilise actions to narrow the inequality gap as much as possible. Let’s educate practitioners and policymakers, who are generally unaware of the multiple inequalities that encompass children’s participation, to realise that they can also contribute to making life fairer for everyone. Let’s empower children to stand up for their equal rights and embrace their worldviews and interpretation of reality, which is contextual and should be understood according to each society, time, and children’s personal situations.