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Fronting children, youths in national development drive

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VALEYA— We are now empowered

Fully believing in the righteousness of her cause, 19-year-old Angella Chiku speaks with the authority of someone with decades of experience in handling human rights issues.

Just six years ago, however, the teenager— who is from Chikhawu Village, Traditional Authority Tengani, in the Southern Region district of Nsanje— was as docile as some of the children who have no interest in issues that affect their lives.

“This is because I was not well versed in such issues. There was no one to teach people like me about human rights.

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“As such, it was difficult to stand up for one’s rights. But things have changed now and I am happy that I can stand up for my rights and stand up for my rights,” she says.

Young people are said to be agents of change and tomorrow’s leaders but their voices are often stifled and ignored in communities, especially in rural areas.

This has prompted some non-State actors to embark on programmes meant to sensitise young people to issues hinging on their rights, the objective being that young people be in a better position to demand their rights and address various forms of abuse they face in communities.

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Under one of the initiatives, which the United Nations Emergency Fund funds in Nsanje and Chikwawa districts, duty bearers have embraced the idea of incorporating youths in their plans and budgets as well as empower them to amplify their voices and be heard.

That is how Chiku, who sat Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations last year, had started standing up for her rights. Not just that, she is able to do budget tracking

too, thereby promoting accountability and transparency in public service delivery.

She is one of the youth in the village who teams up with peers 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 also demand development initiatives they need in their communities.

“When we meet, we discuss issues taking place in our community and the challenges we face as well as abuses 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,” Chiku points out.

Finiasi Valeya is another youth in the same village. She serves as the chairperson for the children’s corner and secretary of the social community accountability committee, both of which have been established at T/A level in his area.

He says a lot has changed since they started meeting as youths.

“We are now empowered, such that we demand change when the need arises.

“In the past, we, as youths and children, did not know that there is a fraction of funds under 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,” explains Valeya, who is 20 years old.

He says youths who were once idle have now resorted to crop cultivating.

“We cultivate crops such as maize and vegetables, which they sell to become self-reliant,” he asserts.

Chiku concurs with Valeya.

“A lot has changed since we started meeting. In the past, for example, children and youths with disability were being stigmatized, such that they were not being encouraged to go to school. The good news is that, through current interventions, they are being empowered to demand their right to education. Most of them are now going to school,” Chiku indicates.

One of the youths whose rights they fought for is Emmanuel Alfred, 20, who is physically challenged.

She says such is the power of youths.

It is not only the youth who are speaking out; children, too, have joined the train of positive change.

Take, for instance, Margaret Santo, a standard four learner at Ndiola Primary School in the district.

“I developed interest in joining the children’s corner so that I could express myself on some of the issues we, children, go through. For example, we lack food, school books and clothes and sometimes we are neglected by our parents,” Margaret explains.

Margaret says a lot has improved for children in the community.

“Some things have changed for the better. For example, our school had nine teachers but, after we raised this concern to duty bearers, five more teachers have been deployed to our school. We did not have an office for our teachers but after we expressed this through our ‘bwalo’, the office is now being constructed and is almost complete. We also had shortage of desks but we now have more desks,” Margaret elucidates.

But how are local structures such as village development committees working with the youth and children to accomplish set goals?

Gladys Gesimani is chairperson for Chikhau Village Development Committee and says they have been attending children’s corner activities to get first-hand information on issues affecting youths and children.

“We are now working together with the youth and children and we have become an integral part of what they discuss,” Gesimani says.

She sees youths and children getting more involved in community activities, more so after Parliament increased the Constituency Development Fund package from K40 million to K100 million per fiscal year.

Finance Minister Sosten Gwengwe indicated, when he announced news of the increase to Parliament earlier this year, that this would ensure that members of Parliament and other stakeholders embark on development initiatives that leave a mark on communities.

Chikwawa District Commissioner Ali Phiri admits that children and youths are now part of planning and 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,” Phiri points out.

According to Youth Minister Richard Chimwendo Banda, the country can only meet its development aspirations if youths are fully engaged in community and national development efforts.

It remains a fact that if children and the youth amplify their voices, they can change and shape the societies they live in and be agents of the needed change in Malawi.

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