Evaluating children's participation in decision making : a case study of a child helpline in India
Beneficiary participation is now well established as essential to all development projects. However when the beneficiaries are children, the validity and relevance of their participation is debated and questioned. In my research I attempted to evaluate the nature of children's participation in a national child helpline project in India and analyse the relationship between participation and project outcomes. I also explored the key factors that affected the level of participation. My findings are derived from my research involving an in-depth study of 4 cities where the helpline is operational. I had focus group discussions and interviews with approximately 300 children - street children, children in residential homes and children living in slum communities. Additionally I met with 40 frontline workers working with the child helpline. I have used the data from children and frontline workers along with statistical data from the helpline to arrive at my conclusions. I am also drawing on my professional experience of working with the helpline for over 5 years. Whilst examining the relationship between the level of participation and project outcomes, I conclude that helplines with higher levels of participation were reaching out to more marginalised groups of children and were more credible amongst children. The understanding of participation played a key role in this process by influencing the way outreach was conducted in the four cities. However there was no observable relationship between the level of participation and the effectiveness of the helpline in changing attitudes of allied systems (police, doctors) or in affecting policy change. I analysed that the perception of the frontline workers to children's competence and consequently the best interests of the child were key factors in varying the level of participation at the helplines. I also observed that the management style mirrored the level of children's participation. I suggest that participation should be linked to influencing decisions; that participation does play a role in affecting project outcomes; and that polices and programmes with children should be grounded in a child rights framework to be flexible and responsive to the diversity in life situations of children.