Empowering children with information, skills and support to advocate for their own rights

In India, the group Concerned for Working Children (CWC) enables children to create formal structures such as unions and governance bodies to advocate for their own rights. Through this work, CWC strengthens the participa­tion of children, especially those who are working or otherwise marginalized, in decision-making and governance on all matters that concern them. CWC has been actively involved in this cause since 1980 and is currently working in five Karnataka districts.

CWC’s efforts to empower working children led initially to the formation of Bhima Sangha — a union of, by and for working children. Bhima Sangha has a membership of 13,000 children in Karnataka and is an important partner in CWC’s work to enable children to play a proactive role in decision-making and governance. Since its inception in 1990, Bhima Sangha has been a powerful advocate for the rights of working children and is equally concerned about improving the quality of life of their parents and communities. At the national and regional level, Bhima Sangha is assisting other working children with the formation of their own unions; it was also instrumental in forming the National and International Movements of Working Children.

So that they could influence the programs and policies that affect them, the children also demanded a formal role in governance. This led to the creation of what was later called the Makkala Panchayat, or Children’s Govern­ment, elected by children in the community. The children designed its structure and determined its purpose and leadership style. Because the children wanted it to have a formal status with the local government, or Panchayat, CWC devised a mechanism to formally integrate the Makkala Panchayat with the village government through a task force, which is chaired by the district minister. The task force is comprised of both adults and children. Elec­tions to the Makkala Panchayat are held by the formal government administration and the secretary of the adult Panchayat acts as the secretary of the children’s Panchayat.

CWC teaches the children skills such as research, documentation, communication, negotiation and advocacy. The children use theater, puppetry, songs, publications, wall magazines and audio and video tools to support their stands and principles. They spell out their priorities, substantiate their claims and advocate for change. To main­tain good relations with the local government, the children avoid political or other affiliations, but they are actively involved in political debates.

Through their organized participation in political structures and local governance the children become more self-aware and they make the state accountable. Their participation in political space also enables other marginalized groups such as women and ethnic groups to change their immediate situation and strengthen democracy.

Thousands of children now participate in the governance of their villages and adults who were traditionally feudal and patriarchal have become advocates for children’s rights. They see a value in the active and equal participation of children, as they have seen it translated into overall benefits for the whole community.


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What we can learn from this tactic: 

When equipped with skills and with access to appropriate information, children can defend and advocate for their own rights.

The children’s organizations have been powerful in addressing a wide range of issues at the local level, includ­ing water and fuel problems, housing, pensions for the elderly and disabled, exploitative child labor, substance abuse and child marriage. They have also contributed substantially to the policies on children at the state, na­tional and international levels.

The foundation of CWC’s work is the empowerment of working children so that they may be their own first line of defense and participate in an informed manner in all decisions concerning themselves. CWC has shown that the troubling living conditions and challenges facing children can be mitigated through education, empower­ment and partnerships with adults. CWC works in concert with local governments, communities and working children themselves to implement viable, comprehensive, sustainable and appropriate solutions. The outcome is an enhanced quality of life for all community members, made possible by the input of children themselves.