By Lely Djuhari
ANKARA, Turkey 1 February, 2012 — Turkey is at pivotal point in the country`s history. Parliamentarians are poised to make fundamental changes to their constitution and children will have a rare chance to leave their stamp on it.
A two-day consultation, Children`s Opinion on the Process for a New Consultation, began this week bringing together 162 children from child rights committees from all provinces, organized by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, the Parliament and UNICEF Turkey.
The new constitution will influence the country`s future as a thriving democracy. Amendments could pave the way to greater freedom of expression. It will change the relationship between the judiciary and political parties. It will also allow the president and parliament to have a say in the composition of the constitutional court - the final port of call when challenging laws in a country.
Academics, non-governmental organizations, disadvantaged groups have already submitted their opinions in the process which started last year. This inclusive dialogue did not occur the previous time the charter was drawn up.
Sevval Lafçi and Mirkan Özdemir, child committee representatives, will present on Thursday the results of the children`s discussions to Cemil Çiçek, Speaker of the Turkish Parliament.
In doing so, Turkey will be one of the few countries in the world where children were consulted in the drafting of a constitution, the basis of all national and sub-national laws.
“We want the government to set their policy with child rights at the centre,” 16-year-old Sevval said. “Getting child rights into the Constitution will make it easier to for us to advocate for children`s right in laws and making sure that resources are given.”
Turkey is a country of 74 million people, of which slightly less than a third is under the age of 18. With a vibrant economy, it is a nation eager to influence regional and global affairs.
“We need to have a constitution that includes the voices of all people. In the past, our constitutions were drafted during times of hardship. This is the first time that we are able to do it during peacetime. We need to capture the spirit of these new times,” said Fatma Şahin, Minister of Family and Social Policies, whose office is responsible for facilitating child participation.
Speaking at her first public event as the new UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States, Marie-Pierre Poirier, said: “In every part of the world, UNICEF supports legislative reforms that are geared to bringing domestic law in alignment with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
She outlined the importance of incorporating the Convention of the Rights of the Child, particularly its four basic principles: non-discrimination, the best interest of the child, the right to live, survival and development and respect of the views of the child.
“I extend my wholehearted congratulations to the Government of Turkey for having accomplished this invaluable work. The lesson I take from today is inspirational. I will take this as an example to the Governments of Europe and Central Asia of what can be achieved through children participating in the future,” she said.
UNICEF Turkey has been working to empower youth to take on a more active role as citizens. Child rights committees, which meet at least one or several times a year at the province and national level, have been established since 2000 to help young people fight for the rights of the most vulnerable children.
Some children - especially poorer children in rural and eastern areas - are still missing out on the health, nutrition and education enjoyed by others. Tens of thousands of children of primary school age are still out of school, partly due to late starting. Hundreds of thousands are frequently absent and – particularly in the case of girls - may be in danger of dropping out. In remote, predominantly rural areas and fast-growing urban districts, the education and health services may be inadequately equipped and staffed.
Berkay Saygin, another child advocate familiar with these issues, is trying to help others understand how important the constitution is for children.
“Many of my friends don`t understand what child rights are, let alone why a constitution is important for them,” he said with a grin. He recounted the many times he was branded as “uncool and boring” when he brought up the subject during class breaks or lunch times. “It`s exciting to see this issue on TV and in the newspapers,” he added. “The more I learn about it, the more I want to understand how it impacts my life.”
“Many adults, even some teachers, ask me why am I getting involved in this? I am `just` a child. Getting these principles into the constitution, that children can give their opinion on things which matter to us, gives me the power to answer back. It`s a starting point,” he said.
-- Lely Djuhari is a UNICEF communications specialist whose focus is on child rights in Eastern Europe, South Caucaus and Central Asia. You can follow her on Twitter at @LelyDjuhari.