Child and youth participation in Finland
Finland has many strengths regarding listening to children and young people and taking their views seriously, in particular in formal representational structures. However, improvements could be made by developing new innovative child participation methods, providing training, ensuring child-friendly information and involving disadvantaged children and young people.
The report Child and youth participation in Finland – A Council of Europe policy review (2011) provides a comprehensive analysis of the implementation in Finland of the right of children to participate in decisions affecting them. The report undertakes a legal and policy analysis of child and youth participation in Finland and assesses how child participation functions in different settings.
As the review highlights, legal obligations for child and youth participation are well in place in Finland and significant achievements have been made in promoting the childs right to be heard.
However, improvements can be made by encouraging more bottom-up participatory initiatives, strengthening the involvement of young children, investing in the training of professionals working with children and making sure that wherever possible children are consulted at the beginning of decision-making processes.
The children have the right to be heard and taken seriously
Child and youth participation as guaranteed in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child means that children have the right to be heard and taken seriously.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted a General Comment on the implementation of this article and gives detailed guidelines on which areas children have a right to participate. The Finnish country review on child and youth participation has been based on these guidelines.
The Finnish policy review is the first in-depth report which will contribute to the empirical basis for the future work of the Council of Europe in this area, including a future recommendation of the Committee of Ministers on child and youth participation.
Moreover, the policy reviews seek to provide member states with an analysis of the extent to which legislation, policies and practice in their countries comply with a childs right to participation and how these can be improved.
There is a need for new instruments and tools
An analysis of the law and policies on child and youth participation shows that there is an extensive range of Finnish legislation on the subject, and the formal participation structures are based on it. Although the legislation is the basis for child and youth participation, it has not been extensively evaluated, with the exception of parts of the Youth Act.
However, the formal structures ensure that child participation very much involves a top-down approach, where activities are pre-planned, instead of a bottom-up approach. Children themselves are not involved in the development of participation methods, and new methods are not sufficiently tried. There is a need for new instruments and tools to improve the participation of children and young people in all aspects of life and society.
In Finland, child and youth participation, including direct and representative forms of involvement, mainly takes place in formal structures. These include local youth councils (above 12 years), school councils, national and local childrens parliaments (7 to 12 years old), childrens ombudsmen and surveys carried out with children across Finland, which is a strength of the Finnish participation system.
Children need to be educated and informed about their rights
The majority of children (85%) know about their right to be heard and taken seriously, having been informed about this by adults or other children and young people.
Children consulted for the review stated that the majority of children felt that their views were listened to and taken seriously when they were participating in informal structures, such as the family and dealings with school staff, doctors and health workers, whereas they were less likely to be listened to in other settings, such as local and national administration, or in dealings with lawyers and judges, child care workers in residential institutions, and the media.
Children consulted said that child helplines and school councils (around 60-70% of the children consulted) did a great deal to ensure that the views of children and young people were heard and taken seriously. Half of the children consulted said the Finnish Childrens Ombudsman, the Finnish Childrens Parliament, the municipal youth councils and the local childrens parliaments did a lot to ensure their views were heard. However, almost a third of the children did not know what these bodies were and were unable to answer the question.
According to the children, the Finnish Parliament and its members do less than other formal and informal bodies to listen to their views.
An overall conclusion that emerged from consultations with the children and from an analysis of the existing participation structures is the need for better training of professionals working with and for children, including teachers, legal professionals, health care workers, police officers, social workers, NGO representatives and municipal, regional and national civil servants.
In addition, children need to be educated and informed about their rights and about child participation. In addition to education, children should be given more child-friendly information.
Children and young people are often not consulted at the start of the decision-making process and can therefore not exert real influence on decisions made. The municipal case studies reveal a number of good practices whereby children participate in local decision-making committees on various local issues, including education or urban planning.
With regard to participation in educational institutions, many school councils have been established. These are regarded by pupils as representing their interests. It is recommended that school councils be made compulsory at all levels of education and that its role and objectives be laid down in law. In addition, specific methods need to be developed in pre-schools and nurseries.