Young people are said to be agents of change and tomorrow’s leaders but their voices are often stifled and ignored in their communities, especially in rural areas.
Various organisations are pushing for the voices of youth and children to be heard particularly regarding their rights and challenges they face in society.
In Nsanje and Chikwawa districts, Development Communications Trust (DCT), with support from Unicef, has empowered local councils to involve young people and children in their development plans and budgets.
Angella Chiku, 19, lives in Chikhawu Village in Traditional Authority Tengani in Nsanje and sat her Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations last year.
She is one of the youth in the village who are teaming up every week to discuss some of the challenges they face and also how they can overcome the obstacles in a setting called children’s corner or ‘bwalo’ in Chichewa.
The idea is to create a safe space where the youth and children can discuss issues that concern them and demand development initiatives they need in their communities.
“When we meet, we discuss issues about developments taking place in our community and the challenges we face. One of the issues is that young people like myself, were being neglected in my community before we began meeting as a children’s corner,” Angella says.
Finiasi Valeya is another youth in the same village who is chairperson of the children’s corner and secretary of the social community accountability committee which have been established at T/A level in his area.
He says a lot has changed since they started meeting as youth in his community and that they are now empowered to demand change so that they too as young people are involved in development.
“For example as youth and children, we didn’t know that there is a portion of funds under the Constituency Development Fund that we are supposed to benefit from. But since we were empowered, we are now able to write proposals to the district council on developments we want implemented,” Finiasi, 20, says.
He adds that youth who were once idle have now teamed up and are cultivating crops such as maize and vegetables which they sell to become self-reliant.
Angella concurs with Finiasi, that there are now some improvements in how the youth and children are being regarded by others in their community.
“A lot has changed since we started meeting. For example, children and youth with disabilities were being disregarded and were not encouraged to go to school, but now the community, through our voice as the youth, is empowering them to go to school,” Angella says.
She reckons an instance that showed youth can effect change, where they lobbied for 20-year-old Emmanuel Alfred, who is physically challenged, to return to school.
The approached his parents and raised awareness on the importance of sending him to school as well as lobbying for him to attend the children’s corner so that he could not be left behind.
Children as well are demanding that their rights be protected.
Margaret Santo, a standard four learner at Ndiola Primary School in Chikhawu Village, says she developed interest to join the children’s corner so that she could freely voice out some problems they come across at school.
“As children, we sometimes lack food, school books and clothes and sometimes we are neglected by our parents,” Margaret says.
The learner brags that most of the problems which children and young people used to face in her community are no longer there.
“For instance, our school had nine teachers only, but when we rained our concern to duty-bearers, they sent five more.
“We did not have a staffroom but after speaking about the problem through our bwalo, authorities came in and the office is being constructed,” Margaret says.
In all the endeavours by the youth and the children, local structures such as village development committees (VDCs) are playing their part.
“We have been attending the children’s corner to get first-hand information about what they are discussing. We also highlight to them what entails abuse so that they can report when they face it,” Chikhawu VDC chairperson Gladys Gesimani says.
She insists leaving young people behind is dragging the nation back.
In Chikwawa, where a similar initiative was implemented, District Commissioner Ali Phiri admits that young people were being ignored in decision-making processes.
“When planning, we mostly focused on maternal and other issues to do with adults. But there are specific issues to do with children and the youth’s welfare that are also important and should be involved in our plans as a council,” Phiri says.
And DCT Executive Director Prince Mtelera says once young people are involved in decision-making processes, their needs will be taken care of.
Margaret, Angella and several others are witnesses of the value of leaving no one behind in plans that affect their lives.