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Children represent more than half of people affected by conflict. Yet less than 5% of global humanitarian aid is spent on their protection and education. Locally and internationally, children’s voices and opinions all too often go unheard. After all, they’re just kids, right? What do they know?
Quite a lot as it turns out. Even when it’s done with the best intentions, making decisions on the behalf of children because ‘you know what’s best for them’ isn’t going to deliver the best results. And what if your society and traditions lead you to believe that children should be seen not heard? Or that girls don’t have any rights and their place is at home doing domestic chores?
From child soldier to global campaigner.
Polline was 12 when she was abducted by Joseph Kony’s fearsome Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda.
At 16 she fell pregnant after being forced to become the ‘wife’ of a rebel commander. During labour, she was forced to walk for miles as the rebels tried to evade the Ugandan army. The journey caused her son to die before he was even born. So Polline had to endure an agonising operation to remove the baby.
There was no anaesthetic, just a local doctor and a razor blade.
“If your baby dies you are not supposed to mourn for it. If you do, they will kill you. You have just to go somewhere secretly and cry. When you return, you should look like nothing has happened.”
After the crude operation Polline’s health rapidly deteriorated. Going to hospital a few years later provided Polline with the opportunity to escape the clutches of the LRA.
“When I came back I really wanted to go back to school. Although a terrible thing happened to me when my baby died, it led me to get the chance to escape. It shows that something positive can come from something terrible.”
Polline is now continuing her studies at university and hopes to qualify as a lawyer so that she can bring those who have recruited and abused girls to justice.
We brought this inspirational young woman and her message to 10 Downing Street and she continues to be a passionate advocate for our work.
A megaphone, not a spokesperson
The active participation of children in decision making is enshrined in international law, but it’s often done tokenistically, if at all. But we’re not passionate about it because it’s the law. Nor because it’s what gives us the mandate for our work. But because it’s our fundamental belief that this is the way to deliver the best quality work.
It’s their voice that we want to be heard, not ours. That’s why we provide the stage and the tools for them to speak for themselves and tell their own story.
By its very nature, advocacy is quite an intangible exercise, especially at the local community level. It’s all about winning hearts and minds. Changing entrenched attitudes that change behaviours; that change laws; that change countries. Yet this is often hard to measure and it takes years to work fully.
But we believe that it is incredibly cost-effective and leads to the societal change that makes a difference to thousands, and potentially millions, of children. But it’s increasingly hard to secure restricted funding for this kind of work. Some donors are increasingly focusing on work with a demonstrable impact, and it’s easier to count water wells than measure a community’s changing attitudes towards early marriage.
That’s why in 2016 we launched an innovative pilot project, VoiceMore. VoiceMore is an advocate development programme built around the understanding that the best advocates for any issue are those that understand the effects first-hand; people who have a personal, lived experience of it. In many cases, the very people that are most affected are in the least powerful position to speak up or connect to others outside their immediate environment. The development agenda is so often set by adults – we’re enabling children to reclaim it for themselves.
In 2016 we ran the first VoiceMore training sessions in Bangui, Central African Republic, and then in Za’atari Camp, Jordan. The programme takes 10 young people in each country through a comprehensive programme of support giving the young people the tools to both speak out, and build connections with other young people that have experienced similar challenges. The groups are also designing and carrying out their own local advocacy projects, focusing on the issues they feel are most in need of attention in their own communities. In CAR, the group are working on a project to tackle the ingrained issue of teachers seeking sexual acts in exchange for good school grades, and in Jordan, the group are focusing on the problem of child labour in the camp.
We’re investing in ensuring these children are building up transferable skills, and developing their knowledge, confidence, and capacity to advocate for their rights and that of their peers over a number of years. Whilst some organisations might ask children to tell their story without extensive training and preparation, we want to put children at the centre of what we do. Being accountable to children is one of our core values, and by creating an active rather than passive relationship, we want to enable children to stand up for their own rights and determine how they express their own feelings.
We’re aiming to deliver this programme in all the countries we work in; it’s vital that young people are supported and empowered to become their own advocates and their voices are not just heard, but really listened to. Otherwise our understanding of their unique experiences, perspectives and concerns is lost – to the detriment of efforts to support them.
To hear from the VoiceMore group in CAR about their experiences watch the video below.