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Op-ed

My President, Please Protect Children’s Right to Safe and Meaningful Participation in Sierra Leone

January 26, 2017 By Chernor Bah

Over 16 years ago, I led a group of children to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs to ask for their support in setting up what we called then our own “children’s parliament”. We wanted a national children’s organisation to give a strong and bold voice to children across the country. Besides, we reasoned that if children could be used as destructive agents of war, we could also be constructive agents for our country’s peace and prosperity and exercising our rights was the surest way to build for the future. Luckily, the leadership of the Ministry at the time listened and organised the first workshop with the support of UNICEF and Plan Sierra Leone to begin the process of setting up what became known as the Children’s Forum Network. My peers- over fifty children from all over the country and representing every possible category- overwhelmingly voted for me as the Founding President.

Our group set out to “lay a solid foundation” (that’s the organisation’s motto that we agreed on) for children’s rights and started creating a culture of meaningful and safe children’s participation on pretty much every critical issue affecting them at all levels of our society. We set up branches in schools, zones and communities, organised ourselves into regions and decentralised our structures. We led or inspired the creation of new structures like the National Commission for War Affected Children and the United Nations gave us the first of its kind national mouthpiece to elevate our voices in the peace building process -the Voice of Children Radio – which I was honored to be the leader of (as the Junior Executive Producer). We went around the country advocating for children’s rights and sensitising other children and adults alike about the importance of putting children’s rights at the heart of the post war country that we were reconstructing. We became the first group of children anywhere to be invited to not only set the parameters for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but to submit an official thematic testimony and eventually prepare a groundbreaking child-friendly version of the commission’s final report. We counselled and welcomed children who were former combatants and helped them to reintegrate into communities and we encouraged lawmakers and political parties to sign on to children’s manifestoes committing to promote children’s rights and welfare once in office. Those efforts, among others led to the passage of the National Child Rights Act.

 I could go on, but you get the point-Sierra Leone, through the Children’s Forum Network has been building an enviable culture of children’s participation and the ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has been supportive in institutionalizing and respecting the voices and rights of children expressed through this institution. In fact, academics, practitioners and news houses have been studying this remarkable feat and continue to write about the strides we continue to make in this respect. Many countries and institutions, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Liberia the United Nations and others have either invited folks like me to go share our experience or in some cases help them build comparable surviving structures for children’s participation.

Events in the past weeks however threaten to reverse the survival of this fine structure and alongside it, the progressive culture of children’s participation that we have built over the years and that I know you, Mr. President, certainly wish to uphold. The leadership of the Children’s Forum Network, led proudly for the first time by an articulate and passionate young lady, Paulina Bangura are mired in what seems like an unending kerfuffle with some officials of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, including the Honorable Minister, Dr. Sylvia Blyden. The children claim that their Annual General Meeting was unceremoniously cancelled, leaving their colleagues from across the country badly stranded and in danger of abuse or other unfortunate outcomes. To air their frustration, they apparently attempted to use the conference room of the Ministry (as has always been the custom) for a briefing but were allegedly violently rebuffed by strong men or “thugs” who the minister later claimed were her “friends” on social media. Civil society groups including the Child Protection Committee have issued statements calling for an investigation into the alleged beating of children at the ministry while the police is said to be investigating the issue.

There seems to be an unending social media barrage of allegations and counter allegations, meetings and counter-meetings and everything in between. The Minister, apart from one signed release that her Deputy quickly dissociated herself from, is yet to officially provide clarification on the grievances of the children or attempt to work with the legitimate leadership of the children to resolve the spiraling impasse. In fact, her social media posts have been at best, incendiary and combative, in one instance comparing the children to planners of genocide in Rwanda. Efforts my past members (including me) and others to mediate and ameliorate the situation continue to be futile.

I do not agree with some of the demands the children have made or even some of the ways they are alleged to have conducted themselves in agitating for their rights but I know for a fact that they have a right to the free and safe expression of their views. And that they have a right not to be threatened, bullied or physically attacked anywhere, not least at the Ministry of Children’s Affairs.  I therefore ask Mr. President to at least listen to their legitimate concerns and help salvage a cherished culture of children’s bold participation in our country. Some of their demands are certainly just- there needs to be a full and complete investigation of the alleged beating of children at the ministry and a proper accountability at the very least. And we need to ensure that the culture of expressing their views fearlessly and of respecting their leadership and their rights to safe and meaningful participation be strengthened, not weakened.

As the Founding President, I pride myself in the foundations of fearless advocacy and democratic principles that we built in the organization. We set a term limit and an age limit and I peacefully handed power after two years of leading the organization- an honor that has set me and others that came after me on a path of numerous privileges and humbling experiences around the world. Our nation’s democracy and its future are harnessed by the cultivation of these values and experiences in children across the country. We cannot allow that to be undermined. I hope that you will listen to the children and that we can continue to build on the enviable culture of guaranteeing children’s safe and meaningful participation.

The Author:

Chernor is a global advocate for human rights, known mostly for his work championing girls’ rights and education. He leads the Population Council’s work on girls in post-emergencies and was recently appointed by the United Nations Secretary General on a Security Council Advisory Group on youth, peace and security.