Can children shape policy?

Can 10-year-olds discuss development with policymakers?

Inclusive development in Malawi has often considered involvement of women and the youth as the most neglected group.

Rarely has it questioned inclusion of children aged below 10.

Many development programmes target children as beneficiaries, not voices that need to be heard to influence policy change.

On December 8, My 10-year-old niece Sangwani recently challenged me. During the burial of her grandfather Professor Fred Msiska at Khwawa in Karonga, she asked me why the ceremony was taking a long time to start.

I explained that we were waiting for the Minister of Education, Science and Technology Susuwele Banda to arrive. She wanted to know why he was going to be in attendance.

She caught me off-guard when she asked to talk to the minister.

I asked her why, but she quickly responded, “There are so many things that are going wrong in this country. No one is thinking about recycling. My friend recently told me that someone was ill, but it took an hour for emergency response to arrive. I want to talk to the minister, doctors, police….”

I thought about how development works in the country, especially children’s voices on the type of world they want for themselves from their own lived experiences.

I thought about many children, including those in rural areas, who can envision the sort of world they need to live in.

This may vary from a need to have a school close to where they live to cries of a four-year-old girl raped in Mpherembe who wants a better environment for child protection.

The big question is: At what point should we be engaging children in policy matters? Should policies be formulated without including experiences and voices of children affected by such decisions?

Culture dictates that voices of children do not matter. Oftentimes, their contribution is ignored and they are mostly excluded from ‘adult conversations’.

It is time we started listening! I listen to Sangwani and her six-year-old sister Shalom. My constant companion is Lungile, three.

They blow me away with their super-intelligent world-changing views!

We could start by introducing children’s parliaments in all primary schools and make it meaningful by disseminating their views to councillors, members of Parliament, ministers and the President.

Malawi is party to the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child (UN CRC).

Article 12 (1) of the 1989 treaty reads: “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” 

This is food for thought for development practitioners and policymakers. Inclusion of children’s voices needs to be embedded in the overarching national policies like the Malawi Growth and Development Strategies, the National Transformational Strategy 2063 and any child-related policies. 

My niece was deeply disturbed by her grandfather’s death. She talked about the last conversation she had with him about her passion for reading and his encouragement that she continue to do so.

That she rose above her mourning to think about issues of national importance assures me that she will grow to be as great as her grandfather.

I hope one day soon she gets her wish and talks to a minister or even the President.

I hope she carries her grandfather’s legacy with the epiphany she had at his funeral.

I also hope one day, we can let children’s own lived experiences and voices be heard in policymaking.

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