I’m grateful. Simply put, I grew up in a world where opportunities to express myself, whether it be through sport, music, drama and or the written word, were endless. It was not natural for me to sit and look pretty as a child, or hold my emotions inside. On the contrary, if I was silent, there was something wrong. As a result, I (perhaps naively) thought a child’s curious nature and imaginary ideas were something to be cherished and accepted.
In Malawi, a silent cultural norm envelops the country, placing children in a category where they should only to be seen and not heard. This type of belief system is hard to comprehend, as my privileged childhood was inclusive of classical repertoire, endless travel and copious amounts of books encouraging critical analysis.
It never occurred to me that kids in other parts of the world were being muted.
On the bright side, organizations like Plan International have been implementing programs designed to address child rights issues, specifically relating to health, access to education, food security and the silencing of youth. According to their website, “Plan Malawi seeks to support government efforts to bring about lasting improvements in the quality of life of disadvantaged children,” through awareness raising and capacity building.
Since 2007, the well-known non-governmental organization has used its extensive reach to bring child rights abuses to the forefront by providing youth with a platform where they can vocalize their concerns. Their solution: radio programs. Plan’s ultimate goal is to “enable [children] and show them their full potential.”
With funding provided by Plan Malawi, Timveni, or “hear us out” as the program is fittingly called, was started by a Canadian journalist named Tiferaji Aryee. Founders, along with Plan, outline that “an essential part of their work is to create spaces for children and young people to discuss together the issues which affect their lives, then ensure adults respect their views so that children may be involved in community decision-making.”
With Plan’s financial contributions, organizers tackled the situation by empowering youth with media skills, giving them the opportunity to create and produce radio programs throughout the country on child rights issues, like child trafficking, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS that negatively affect them. The thought behind the radio project was to have media produced that is by the children and for the children.
Each year, 25 deserving boys and girls across the country are nominated by their schools to partake in the radio project. “First, you have classes educating you on Plan Malawi’s initiatives, then you learn about human rights and child rights and then broadcasting skills,” says Beatrice Mfune, one of the first female participants, selected at the age of 14. “After two weeks, we record programs and we make programs completely about children,” she says.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the project “was receiving letters from kids who heard our programs and liked them,” says Mfune. Before this opportunity, she admits to her oblivion regarding what constituted children’s rights, what type of treatment is considered an infringement of their rights and where a child could voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.
According to Plan, some organizers recognized that there was still an educational gap on the ground. Children, particularly those living in rural areas, were not being actively engaged in the Timveni radio programs. As a solution to this problem, Timveni organizers got together and created what they call the “Listeners’ Clubs.”
Most Listeners’ Clubs consist of 15 to 20 children that meet every day to hear the youth designed programs. If they have any questions or concerns about the content, typically relating to child rights, they formulate letters with a Plan representative and mail them to presenters, who in turn read them on air.
Currently 18 years old, Mfune somberly reflects on her first excursion with the Timveni project. It was early morning when their bus pulled up to the front doors of Lilongwe Central Hospital. Silently, Mfune and her colleagues followed organizers down a long corridor leading to the children’s ward. They were completely unaware of how this experience would change their outlook forever. “There were kids with burns everywhere and some weren’t accidental,” she explains. “For some children, if they took K20 ($0.12 CDN) from their parents, they would burn them.”
After a thoughtful glance, Mfune turns to me and exclaims in a soft voice that it was in that moment at the hospital where “it made [her] feel like [she] could do something for people in need.”