How War and a Group of Children Transformed Children's Rights in a War-Torn Country
The Children's Hearing
The room was packed full, with government ministers, parliamentarians, representatives from child protection agencies, and children from all over the country. The occasion was the a hearing on children, organized by Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help our country get the facts on what had happened during the eleven years of brutal war (1991-2002), and to promote reconciliation to ensure that these atrocities never happen again. The chairman, a revered Bishop, invited me to step forward and present the children's testimony on the nation's civil war. I was seventeen years old, and President of the National Children's Forum Network, an organization that I founded two years earlier.
To prepare for this event, I had led a group of children, mostly members of the Network, to travel around the country and ask other children both what had happened to them and what they wanted from the peace, as a way start to moving forward. We got overwhelming response. Some children wrote poems and songs, while others preferred to draw and paint. Others called in to our special radio programmes to air their views. Many were excited to be a part of this process, while others were skeptical about whether the Commission would give us a forum and even if it did, whether they would take us seriously. This event, which I knew was not an end in itself, was an important milestone in transforming the nation's views on children's rights and was a reflection of how far we had come in our advocacy work in two short years.
In my presentation to the Commission, I said that the children of the country believed that the war was fought primarily against us. Also, they felt, part of the reason for the war was the neglect and marginalization of children and young people, manifested by the visible lack of a platform for us in the governance of the country over the years. I recounted several stories we had collected and presented other materials. I ended with a long list of recommendations for the future, including the need to include children in all decisions affecting them in every sector in the country. I received thunderous applause from the children and remarkably, from the adults in the hall as well. I had just told them some hard truths; a phenomenon that went against the fundamentals of our culture. Weary of war, it seemed that these adults and the nation overall were suddenly willing to listen to their children. What they had witnessed in these eleven years had been enough to make them willing to listen to us and treat us as partners in development. As I argued in my presentation, it was true that children, some of whom were in the hall to cheer me on, had been forced to commit heinous crimes. If we could be this destructive I said, we could as well be constructive, and the country could not afford to ignore us anymore. The evidence was compelling.
The Children's Parliament
Frankly, when I first shared the vision of a Children's Parliament to my friends, it was all a child-like idea; we wanted a children's parliament that would give us a voice in the national discourse, especially at a crucial time in our country's history. I had read somewhere of children's parliaments in other countries that provided a platform for children to take part in governance issues affecting their lives. I was intrigued by the idea of being a child parliamentarian and thought that Sierra Leone should have one too. At an annual event organized for school children, I gathered some of my peers and shared what was a broad concept for promoting more active children's participation at all levels in the society. Many seemed excited by the idea, but I could also see doubt in many faces. A few dismissed this as one of my "big man" ideas that would go nowhere. Ten of us agreed to see the Minister of the newly-created Gender and Children's Affairs Ministry to demand a children's parliament in the country.
The minister seemed amused by this group of "interesting" children. But her Ministry was new, under-funded, and did not have much to point to as successes. The Minister, who we fondly referred to as the "mother of the nation," dissuaded us from the idea of a parliament, saying that too many people would be against us if we had what would be construed as a political and an adult entity. As an alternative, we settled on the concept of a "Children's Forum". Despite her reluctance to give us a children's "parliament" per se, she was more supportive and welcoming than we had expected. She even named a staff member of her ministry to work with us as a facilitator to help move our ideas forward. Her ministry, with support from the NGO, Plan International, helped us organize the first workshop where we carved out specific goals, objectives, and the structure of our initiative. The first workshop brought together over fifty children from all over the country and culminated in the election of an executive with me as the President. I was fifteen years old at the time.
The Children's Forum Network, as we were officially known, became the first national children's organization in Sierra Leone. It was officially recognized and supported by both the government and its major partners, including the United Nations. Our first task was to embark on a membership and awareness-raising drive in schools and child-based institutions around the country. In the first year, I went to 42 schools, preaching about children's rights, and organizing school, zonal, district, and regional branches of the network. Each branch had a president, and each zone or region had a coordinator. We had a meeting every Sunday at the center of the city in one of the major schools, with all the coordinators and the national executive members. Other interested members were free to attend. We also held special weekday meetings at the Ministry's office, with our adult facilitator.
Within the schools, we engaged in a series of sensitization and awareness campaigns on HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, peer counseling, Peace Education (TRC and Special Court) and other related issues pertaining to the welfare of children in Sierra Leone.
We knew that, as children, we could not vote. But we wanted our issues to be part of the first post-conflict elections in the country. We therefore prepared the 2002 National Children's Manifesto, which was a collection of demands of children who were legally disenfranchised for the political leaders of the country in the period preceding the democratic elections. We organized a national program inviting the national party leaders to sign our Manifesto and make a commitment to implement the provisions therein, in this new political dispensation. The document, which was based on views we collected through surveys and radio discussions, has been used as a tool in our advocacy work, especially with the political parties. The Children's Forum has used the signed document as a score card in every election since to promote advocacy of children's issues and for grading the commitment of the country's leaders towards those issues. One of the main issues in our Manifesto, as well as in my submission to the Commission, was the need for the enactment of a children's rights bill.
After years of advocacy, we took active part in the process of drafting this act and campaigning for it in speeches, marches, and meetings with parliamentarians and other government functionaries. After initial very strong resistance from fierce traditional opponents to children's rights, the Children's Act of Sierra Leone was signed into law in 2007. This was certainly a major landmark for children's rights in Sierra Leone. Among other things, it domesticates the international conventions and covenants on children's rights and makes it possible for violators to be brought to justice for their actions against children.
One year after the launch of the Children's Forum, the United Nations approved one of our proposals to set up a children's radio station-the Voice of Children radio project-to provide a national platform for us to both air our views in the national discourse and to hold leaders accountable to us for decisions that affect our well being. I was appointed the Junior Executive Producer, working alongside a UN adult professional in the project. My job was to help create twelve different radio programmes which were to be aired on a weekly basis on varying issues ranging from peace, justice, rule of law, HIV/AIDs, civics, children's rights etc. We designed programmes for different age groups of children and our programmes reached every corner of the country.
Aside from helping to coordinate and produce the programmes that included over 200 volunteer children, I also hosted a weekly, live studio discussion that featured stakeholders, including ministers and parliamentarians, and sought to hold them accountable for actions they took that affected children in Sierra Leonne. We asked tough, but simple questions and invited our studio audiences, mainly consisting of school children and other young people, to ask any questions they had to our guest for the week. This was unprecedented in the history of Sierra Leone. Public servants rarely answered to anyone before, let alone to a group of children. These forums undoubtedly helped mainstream children's rights issues in the country and sunk into the national consciousness that children have a right to air their voices too.
Our messages also generated some tensions among the young people. Some felt that they could now challenge the authorities and condemn them in ways that quite clearly contradicted the culture and traditions of their respective societies. Additional tensions were created as some young people began demanding certain rights that the authorities were not in a position to provide. For example, they demanded education to be made free and compulsory for the first twelve grades of school. To surmount these challenges, we had to restructure our messages and conduct various leadership trainings for our executives and producers on how to lead effective advocacy within the cultural context we were operating.
Sometimes there were organized or isolated (usually post traumatic) negative attitudes among the children. Skeptical adults would easily attribute that to our message of children's rights. Some claimed that our advocacy was inciting a culture that promoted the idea of children "challenging adults". I remember once an elderly uncle and aunt of mine came purposely to our house to rebuke my parents for allowing me to publicly commit the "abominable act of challenging the parents' authority to beat their children in public".
A very big challenge we encountered in our advocacy work was the lack of capacity, first, on our part as an organization, and second, from most of the major institutions we were working with. As an organization led by children under the age of 18 with very little adult facilitation, we lacked the capacity to fully understand certain issues and make the appropriate judgments. This made us extremely prone to being used by adults to carry their own messages. This was particularly evident in our work with the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process. Using information provided to us by the various adult DDR institutions, we actively embarked on sensitization campaigns on the wonderful packages that will be provided especially for children and youth who laid down their arms. In retrospect, most of the promises that we passed along not been fulfilled, which leaves me with a sense of regret. Even with the rigorous work we did with the sensitization and mobilization of our colleagues to take part in the nation's Truth and Reconciliation process, we were basically transmitting adult messages and making promises about such things as reparations, which, from hindsight,,with a little more capacity, we should have known were never going to be fulfilled. When I see the many friends I knew from my visits to rebel disarmament centers and interim care centers still roaming the streets aimlessly,without any concrete projects to help them, I sometimes feel partly responsible for taking part in a structure that frankly, continues to betray them.
But these regrets dim in comparison to the pride I have for what we have and were able to achieve. I always think about how close I came to joining one of the fighting forces as my way to air my voice. I look back at the abuses and atrocities that I experienced and witnessed during the war; leaving school, being displaced and a refugee, witnessing sexual violence in my family, having my house burnt down and losing every material thing that I had at the time. People ask me how I could have led these initiatives with this experience and at that age. I ask why not? That is all that was left of me; to get involved, to feel like somehow, I was being heard. And to those who are wondering, I did not feel like a child; I had no time to be a child. We had to use what we had,at that time in history, to reshape the country and make sure that these things never happened again. All we had were our stories. And we set out to tell them.
Both the Voice of Children and the Children's Forum continue to go very strong. This past week I got an email from the newly elected President of the Forum introducing himself and telling me about his plans for continuing the work. He is the fourth president after me.