Participation is one of the rights recognised by many human rights treaties. This means that people have a right to participate in government and free elections, to participate in the cultural life of the community, to peaceful assembly and association, and the right to join trade unions. For example, the UN Convention on Rights of the Child states that children (all human beings under 18) have the right to have their voice heard when adults are making decisions that affect them, and their views should be given due weight in accordance with the child's age and maturity. They have the right to express themselves freely and to receive and share information. The Convention recognises the potential of children to influence decision making relevant to them, to share views and, thus, to participate as citizens and actors of change. Participation is a right on its own, but, in addition, it also makes other rights possible. If people are involved, for example, in consultations in order to improve health care services, then their participation supports the realisation of their right to health.
The Preamble to the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life (21 May 2003) states:
The active participation of young people in decisions and actions at local and regional level is essential if we are to build more democratic, inclusive and prosperous societies. Participation in the democratic life of any community is about more than voting or standing for election, although these are important elements. Participation and active citizenship is about having the right, the means, the space and the opportunity and where necessary the support to participate in and influence decisions and engage in actions and activities so as to contribute to building a better society.
A great deal has been written and talked about regarding participatory methodologies and their scope for initiating social change and developing participation, especially amongst the most disadvantaged, at grassroots level. In reality there has been little sustained effort or a full understanding of what this actually means. As a result, too often the status-quo is maintained and the active participation and involvement of those most disadvantaged remains limited. This publication showcases the work of projects and organisations that are integrating participatory methods into their practice and thus prove that it can be done.
Youth participation is the active engagement of young people in their own context and beyond. It includes young people being included and involved in decision making at all levels. Youth participation invites young people to take on responsibilities, face challenges and to become active in terms of realising their own wants and needs, to take responsibility for and deal with the consequences of their decisions and actions – developing judgement, communication and collaborative capacities. Youth participation encompasses the recognition and fostering of the strengths, interests, and capabilities of young people.
Participation is also about the planning processes and decision making that both impacts on and includes others – both adults and other young people. An inclusive approach reflects the diversity of the population not only in age but in background as well.
The Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life stresses that to
participate means having influence on and responsibility for decisions and actions that affect the lives of young people or are simply important to them. In practice, therefore, this could mean voting in local elections as well as setting up a youth organisation or an Internet forum to exchange information about hobbies and interests or other creative ways of spending free time. The charter's definition of participation also shows a shift in the approach to young people and youth involvement. Young people are not treated as victims or as a vulnerable group that needs protection and help (the so-called "problem-based approach"). They are not treated as objects of adults' intervention, with the adults assuming that they know what is best for young people. Young people are now seen as active players in organisations or in community life; they are seen as partners with lots of potential, talents and strengths. They should have the opportunity to express their needs and to find ways of satisfying them. (Compass, 2012)
More than a decade ago the Commonwealth Youth Programme and UNICEF proclaimed the following:
As there are many types of developmental processes, cultures and unique individuals in the world, participation is not any one phenomenon. There are various definitions of participation. A basic concept of participation, however, is that people are free to involve themselves in social and developmental processes and that self-involvement is active, voluntary and informed.
UNICEF / Commonwealth Youth Programme Participation Toolkits (2006) Book One
Youth participation creates a platform for young people to increase their involvement in contemporary society. It is a means to amplify their individual and collective voice.
In the Youth Department of the Council of Europe, youth participation has a key role. The Council of Europe has a co-management system in its youth sector, where representatives of youth organisations and governmental representatives work together to define the priorities for the youth sector.
See Forbrig, Joerg (ed.) (2005) Revisiting Youth Political Participation. Strasbourg: Council of Europe