How Viva is training children in Uganda and Zimbabwe to be change-makers.
Poverty is cruel. It doesn’t just deny you resources, security and health. It also erodes your ability to make choices or believe that change is possible; it can strip you of hope and sometimes even humanity.
Where poverty rates are high and life is a constant struggle, there is often little momentum for people to break out from the pattern of abuse or neglect that they may have themselves experienced. This means that children can not only experience material and emotional deprivation but also high levels of abuse from angry, despairing adults around them.
Without hope there can be little prospect for improvement. The callous cycle of inter-generational poverty grinds on.
More than half of Uganda’s children are considered vulnerable. They are not simply living in low income families; they lack the essentials they need to thrive: food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, education and information.
In Zimbabwe, an estimated quarter of all children are orphans. There are believed to be 100,000 child-headed households, where children are raising children because their parents have died and there is no one left to help. This leaves many of the country’s children in desperate need and often invisible to those around them who are struggling with their own circumstances.
Culturally, in these countries, the status of children is low, in particular the youngest, adolescent girls and children with disabilities. They are vulnerable to abuse or neglect by adults and are rarely consulted about issues or decisions that affect them.
But one of the very characteristics that makes children vulnerable in such circumstances also gives grounds for hope. Children watch and model what they see. They are at a stage in their lives when they are powerfully influenced by their environment and the messages – implicit or explicit – that they hear.
If children can be shown a different way, there is opportunity for real change.
Viva’s aim is not simply to try to provide what is lacking – food, shelter, medical help, education – but to raise the status and visibility of children, so that wider society values and protects them and is increasingly intolerant of their exploitation.
But how to do this? Anyone who spends much time with children will know that they are vocal, honest, imaginative, direct, inquisitive and able to cut through the clutter of social norms, politics and prejudice. So who better to push forward the process of change?
This is exactly what is happening in Uganda and Zimbabwe, where our partner networks CRANE and Viva Network Zimbabwe (VNZ) are busy putting children at the centre of their work, developing children’s leadership skills and knowledge of their rights so they can believe in the possibility of change and work together to achieve it.
In Uganda, 400 CRANE child ambassadors have been identified and taught to spot particular needs or injustices affecting children in their communities, and how to address them. They take part in regular camps and seminars where they are trained to go back and lead local Safe Clubs, which are made up of children who work together to tackle difficult but crucial issues like peer pressure and sexual abuse.
The children are acting as vocal and determined advocates on behalf of other children. Rogers describes his response to seeing two other children in his village badly beaten by their parents: “One day these children went to fetch water and were delayed because there were many people at the borehole. The father beat them to the extent that you could touch their hands and hear a cracked bone.
“I reported to my school teacher who visited the home and advised the parents to take the children to hospital. We reported to the village chairman and the headteacher of our school who cautioned the neighbours to be on the lookout for any abuse in the home. The
children were treated and are now at school.”
An important part of the child ambassador training is how to identify and approach adults in positions of influence and authority, and hold them accountable for the protection of vulnerable children, like the village chairman and headteacher to whom Rogers reported this abuse.
Police officers have spoken of their changed attitudes, of how they would previously never have believed that a child could speak out about the rights of other children, but how they are now listening and responding.
In Zimbabwe, our partner network VNZ reaches 30,000 children through 62 organisations and 124 churches. There are many churches in Zimbabwe, and they have influence in the local community. Many church leaders, however, have given little thought to the children in their congregations, and often ask them to leave during the service and wait outside for the adults.
Viva’s Child Friendly Church programme has been designed to help church leaders put children back at the centre of church life, in line with Jesus’s words in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”
Thirty-one churches in Zimbabwe have now taken part in the specialised training, which includes sessions on:
– Recognising children’s roles and potential in church gatherings and the life of the church
– Providing nurture groups for children and their carers and leaders
– Preparing children to lead in prayer and adults to recognise children’s ability to pray powerfully
– Developing effective outreach to children outside the church
Network members are encouraged by how churches are starting to fully embrace the importance of building child-friendly environments and are now networking with other churches to run joint activities. Churches are also organising outreach teams to identify and work with vulnerable children in their communities who do not come to church.
As these churches become more and more child-friendly, children are being invited to sing, dance, lead prayers and even preach, and their confidence and ability is growing.
Adults are increasingly recognising the potential of the children in their midst, and the
importance of nurturing and releasing their gifts. In this way, children become visible, valued and increasingly able to articulate their needs and the needs of others like them.
Turning the church inside out and upside down like this brings life to children and adults, both within and beyond the local church. Churches see growth in numbers as enthusiastic children bring along their friends, siblings and parents, and the word spreads.
By valuing, investing in and empowering children in this way, Viva is helping thousands of children in Africa alone to recognise that they have worth and a voice.
The hope is that these children will grow into confident, articulate adults who know how to spot and stop abuse, how to watch out for others in difficult circumstances, and how to build and lead their communities. These children, we believe, are change-makers
in the making.
Jo Mitchell is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford (www.nightingale.ink) and was previously Viva’s Fundraising Manager.
Sources: UNICEF 2015, Viva Network Zimbabwe 2015 Report, Eriks Report 2015
All images © CRANE
This article first appeared in Life magazine issue 4.