Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment

This module assembles activities related to children’s well-being and empowerment which explore a range of interrelated issues such as child protection, street children, access to education and young people’s agency.

Conceptual Framework guiding the development of the activities proposed for the Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment module

The module that has been renamed Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment is underpinned by several debates that have dominated the literature in the anthropology and sociology of childhood during the last two decades, and by a philosophy of co-creation that genuinely incorporates the ideas, ideals, experiences, expectations of not only the PACE International partners, but also of the communities where they work, including those of their children.

During the last two decades there has been a wealth of research claiming back children’s autonomy, agency, participation and voice in both initiatives addressing their wellbeing and in how they are researched. Scholars behind this movement tried to shift the developmental psychology focus on child development towards a more sociological focus that considers children’s social worlds in the particular stage they are living. In other words, this shift in paradigm which started in the 1980s aimed at understanding children in their “state of being” rather than in a “state of becoming”. One of the aspects of this approach is considering children as social actors who make economic and political decisions, influence others, and are active participants of various situations. In sum, in whatever context they live children have and exercise agency. Agency is, understandably, limited by the structures where their lives unfold, such as families, circle of friends, schools, society at large, and the contexts where those structures operate, such as particular political, economic or historical circumstances.

These debates have also clearly brought into question the child as a universal category. Cross-cultural ethnographies and histories of children have shown the various understandings in relation to who is a child and the circumstances that shape those understandings. Is it age? Is it puberty? Is it the beginning of legal age in particular contexts? Is it work? Is it parenthood? This relativisation of the concept of childhood, however, is counterpoised with the strengthening of the universalisation of the idea of who is a child by governments and intergovernmental organisations including the United Nations. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, stipulates that everyone under the age of 18 is considered a child, which becomes a bit of a problem in contexts where children much younger than 18 have their own children, maintain their households or even participate in armed conflict.

One of the purposes of the co-creation of the Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment module is, in fact, to enable students to challenge the universal idea of the child and help them develop their own understandings of the circumstances young people face in particular circumstances, especially in the contexts where their PACE placements take place. In India, for example, marriage under the age of 18 is very common, and our partner organisations in India work with young people who fall into this category. The module on Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment will assist students in adopting a non-judgemental attitude in relation to this topic and in thinking of possible ways in which these children’s wellbeing could be enhanced without disrupting cultural traditions. However care should be taken not to allow ‘cultural diversity’ to be used as a pretext for discrimination. A case in point would be the engrained practice of child marriage. Students will also be encouraged to understand children’s decision-making power and how empowering them in this regard can be the key to meaningful development. For example, the module will expose students to the case of non-formally educated children in The Philippines who grew up in the streets but with the support of one of PACE’s partner organisations were able to get a demanding job and succeed in it, even without formal education.

Formal education in itself is also a notion that the module intends to bring into question. Although no one would deny that education is the core path to economic development, or to diminishing gender and ethnic segregation, the Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment module conveys the notion that education cannot be made equivalent with schooling. One of the persisting problems of universal primary schooling is the lack of connection that curricula often times has with particular realities. As an example, in many of the countries where PACE International students take their placements, children’s priority is to work so that they can survive and assist their families in the maintenance of their households. However these same children may be under pressure to attend schools in the same way non-working children do. And not only that, most of what they learn at school may be very irrelevant to their particular situation. Through the Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment module we expect students to deconstruct the concept of education and understand it as a series of life experiences that make a child enhance her understanding of the world that is meaningful to her. We want University students to think of alternative ways in which children in the developing world get an education and develop critical thinking in relation to how educational practices and imperatives could be improved to be more attuned with the needs of particular groups of young people and their realities.

In summary, the conceptual guidelines that supported the development of the Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment module emphasise the need to break free from the impositions of models, concepts, categories and institutions that emerge from western wealthy perspectives, and that although well-intentioned do not assist in achieving genuine advancement in the lives of non-privileged children. We want university students taking placements in the developing world to understand development within these parameters and to apply the philosophy of co-creation in their international assignments in the same way the module was developed: by sharing, discussing, appraising and implementing various viewpoints and understandings. In this regard, children’s voices should be incorporated in any project that has them as beneficiaries. Do children think specific initiatives are good for them? Will they solve whatever problem is being addressed? If not, what do they themselves propose? Is that proposal feasible? The phrase “Children are experts on their own lives” is rhetoric but absolutely true.

Finally, a last aspect that this module wants to address is the need for university students to become fully aware of the impact they have and they leave in the international communities where they work, and on young people in particular. This cannot be underestimated. Western ways of living, thinking, including consumption patterns have a strong imprint on disadvantaged communities, to such extent that individuals exposed to close contact with students from overseas come to appreciate these different ways as ideal types. For example, communities influenced by students from overseas have adopted similar attitudes towards alcohol, dress, and body image to the one that prevails in the social milieu of these students. There are stories of even naming newborns in these communities after particular students from Australia. The module on Children’s Wellbeing and Empowerment will raise this as a concern and will encourage reflection on why, again, these universalisation of “ideal types” happens and how to mitigate it through a reinforcement of the appreciation of the rich diversity students are exposed to through their international placements.