Child Participatory Methods: A New Standard for the HBR Approach

In 1992, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was ratified India.  It was around the same year, the founders of Shaishav, Parul and Falgun Sheth left their full time jobs to spend the next 2 decades helping underprivileged children find their voice.  The ratification of the UNCRC was a step in the right direction to abolishing child labor.  Article 32 of the UNCRC, in particular, requests countries to set a minimum age requirement, regulate work hours and conditions, and mandate appropriate penalties. (1)  India cautiously signed the document,  filing a declaration regarding Article 32.  In its declaration, India stipulated that although children need to be protected from exploitation, certain rights could only be “progressively implemented in the developing countries.” (2).  India pointed out that its country’s high prevalence of child labor (and some would argue, dependence on child labor) with its economy hindered fast implementation and enforcement of child labor laws.

At the time, and even now, a significant proportion of the Indian workforce depends on the child labor. The 2001 census reported children constituting 13% of the Indian workforce. (3)  In some cases, the familial economic situation made it impossible for the child to not work. Because the prevalence of child employment stretches across all sectors of industry, regulating this workforce becomes even more complicated.  Thus, India argued it was not feasible to quickly and completely ban child labor. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as CRY reported child labour in 2011 only decreasing by around 20% from 2001. (4)

If you were to read through the UNCRC, it would seem like abolishing child labor would be a major priority if India wants to still meet the other demands of the UNCRC.  For instance, it demands all children have equal access to education, to which India responded by the establishing the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2009.  However, how could children utilize the RTE if they are still stuck in the cycle of child labor?  It is not so easy to walk away from child labor if your family depends on your income or if your employer has tied a debt to your head.  This is where strong child labor laws are needed, so that children do not bear the burden of having to choose to resist child labor.  However, we are still a long way from preventive child labor laws.

Until that day comes, Shaishav realized that hastening the abolishment of child labor depended on educating children about how child labor prevents them from receiving other rights. Parul and Falgun wanted to create a movement which encourages child laborers to recognize their intrinsic rights and create an impetus to pull themselves out of their own situation.  They believed in using methods which don’t preach, but show children how their lives could be enriched by the recognition and self-actualization of their rights to education, protection, and a childhood. So perhaps quite intentionally, Shaishav’s work accomplishes Article 42 of the Convention which states “States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.” (1) In other words, countries should make the rights of children known and comprehended by the children themselves.

A20 Conference. Source: Shaishav.

For nearly 25 years, Shaishav has been at the forefront of child participatory methods, using it to educate child about their rights. What exactly does a child participatory method mean? It means allowing children to make decisions about issues they are personally invested in.  To do so, a child must be educated about the issue, and then guided as they think about available options and develop solutions to a problem. Resources such as mentors and facilities must be availble to children but not necessarily pushed upon them.  They should be able to democratically choose which interventions or things they would like to learn.  Child participation in practice was fairly rare when Shaishav was first established thus, the founders were in for a lot of trial and error.

Celebrating Shaishav’s 25th Anniversary Source: Subha Shanmugavel.

At first, they believed partnerships with schools would be the key to reaching this population, however, it was quickly clear how much their philosophy of education differed from mainstream education.  The Sheths believed in holistic development which meant a child would be taught things like mental health, personal hygiene, and interpersonal relationships along with academic subjects.  Holistic education they believed was important in helping children build self-esteem and camaderie between their peers.  Once this foundation was established, the Sheths wanted to bring children up to speed on their own rights and how to make sure their words were turned into action by whomever they were trying to influence. 

Developing creative methods through which children could  express their pure and unmanipulated opinions really tested the organization, founders and children whom came to Shaishav. It is a process of constant check-ins and paying attention to details such the context in which conversation take place. For instance, if a child was asked if he likes school in presence of school teacher would he be more likely to say he does like school even if he does not?  

Furthermore, how do you help children prioritize their issues? How will the youngest or perhaps quieter children’s voices be heard? To overcome these intricacies in data collection and promote inclusion, Shaishav used cooperative games. For instance, Shaishav uses a game called “pots and beans” is used to quantitatively decide which issues matter the most to a group. Pots are laid out labeled with the most popular issues of concern expressed by the children. It could be as simple as a new swing in the playground or as complex as approaching the government for a new school building.  Then, each child divides a handful of beans between the pots. More beans are put in the pots with issues which matter most to them and after all the children have each dispersed their handful of beans among the pots, the beans are counted. In this way, children unbiasedly decided their own priorities.

“The Ladder of Participation.” Source: UNICEF and Roger Hart (5, 6)

Child participation also has theoretical roots in child development techniques.  It is most directly related to Dr. Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation. Shaishav’s goal was to reach the 8th step which was “child-initiated shared decisions with adults.”  Through their flagship program, Balsena, they were able to achieve this. Balsena, in fact, is not a program but rather a children’s collective. It works just like a government with an electing body, council and executive board.  The leadership positions have term limits and there are even sex ratios for certain positions. All of these details were worked out by children.  Balsena functions as voice for the underprivileged children of Bhavnagar, creating real change in their communities and representing their interests even as far as the national levels of government.

Today, Shaishav’s founders travel all over India and the world to share the methods of child participation. Most recently, Parul was invited to the Alibaba group sponsored “A20 Summit on Social Leadership and Child Advocacy” in Beijing.  The inaugural summit‘s theme was “Building of a Dynamic Platform for Global Child Participation Cooperation.”  Child participatory methods are being recognized as an international standard for NGOs working with children.  This could be in part due to the recent shift in adopting a Human Rights Based (HBR) approach as recommended by the UN in the development sector.  

The HBR approach emphasizes community participation and ownership of all developmental schemes. This means the community is involved in the determining what is urgently needed and are actively involved in creating solutions.  Child participation and the children’s collectives are seen as a healthy way to foster strong and sustainable community relations among the next generation of citizens.

Shaishav’s model has become one of the successful and enduring methods of this technique.  While the founders do to training for UNICEF and other major development organizations, their hearts remain in the grassroots world and they passionately welcome invitations from young NGOs whom are just beginning their journey into child participation. 

A fish in water knows it needs clean water. But if the water has been polluted for so long, perhaps it doesn’t realize it can ask for clean water or that it is owed clean water. Similarly, Shaishav’s goal is help them recognize children realize that they know what they want, and to guide them towards asking for what they are owed.  Shaishav is extremely proud of the children whom have spoken up for their rights… here’s hoping they will see even more children exercise their right to a happy childhood for years to come!


  1. United Nations General Assembly. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25, 20 Nov 1989. Accessed at:
  2. “Status of Ratification: Interactive Dashboard.” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Homepage, 2014. Accessed at:
  3. “Introduction: Child Labour in India.” UNICEF India Homepage. Accessed at:
  4. “Child Labour.” Child Rights and You Homepage, 2017. Accessed at:
  5. Hart, Roger. “Eight Levels of Young People’s Participation in Projects.” Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship.  UNICEF Innocenti Essays, No. 4. Florence (Italy): UNICEF/International Child Development Centre, 1992. Accessed at:
  6. Hart, Roger. “Stepping Back from ‘The Ladder:’ Reflections on a Model of Participatory Work with Children.” Participation and Learning: Perspectives on Education and the Environment, Health and Sustainability. Eds. Alan Reid et al. Cham (Switzerland): Springer Science & Business Media, 2008. 19-31.

A recent Emory University graduate interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation, Subha would like to eventually work for an NGO. By serving with Shaishav as an AIF Clinton Fellow, she hopes learn more about their world class philosophy for children's empowerment. Prior to joining AIF, Subha interned at the American Association for People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., and the Global Village Project in Atlanta, Georgia, as a development and policy intern.

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