In the humanitarian sector children are often simply seen as the recipients of assistance designed by others, rather than as agents of change who can help shape how their needs are responded to. In my experience it is quite rare, especially in a conflict affected country, that aid organisations ask children directly what their problems are and what change they want to see – let alone deliver it in a way which involves children.
War Child UK is using an approach that tries to rectify this. It asks children to score how safe they feel at home, at school and in their communities using a child-friendly rating scale. These findings are analysed and the child’s recommendations for change are consolidated and exhibited in a Child Safety Report Card (CSRC). I have seen first-hand what an empowering process this is for children, as it provides them with an opportunity to speak up and influence change.
It is underpinned by the assumption that children know much more about their own lives and their perceptions than anyone else. Eliciting information from partners or teachers alone is insufficient since sometimes they are part of the problem. So we need to talk to the children themselves. Through Child Safety Report Cards, boys and girls have a say in their own protection response and gain a degree of control over what their future may look like.
War Child UK has practiced this child-led child safety research in three of our country programmes – Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Afghanistan. Ethical guidelines and the requirements of War Child’s Child Safeguarding Policy were strictly followed. Children were provided full information on the process and provided their informed consent to participate.
During the inception stage, we worked with young researchers – youths aged between 14-24 who we had worked with in projects such as our child parliaments and child rights clubs – who provided the opportunity to design questions that other children and young people would respond to. Naturally, we found that children would open up more to their peers. The findings were extremely informative. These young researchers were supervised by adults from a distance to provide a safety net for all children involved. Data gathered was put into a simple web-based programme to generate the final results. In Uganda, 3,200 children participated in the research, in DRC it was 665 and in Afghanistan it was 1,526. Overall the findings indicated that these children don’t feel safe in their households, schools and communities.
In Uganda children reported feeling safer in schools then at their homes, in Afghanistan it was the opposite while in the DRC children reported that they don’t feel safe in both of those places. The main safety concerns identified by children were:
Uganda: physical abuse, defilement and early marriage
DRC: corporal punishment and getting abducted while fetching water
Afghanistan: physical, emotional and sexual violence and corporal punishment.
Children and young people in these respective countries used the CSRCs to lobby their local and national governments to listen to their concerns and commit to changing policies and practices to keep them safe.
For me, one of the most memorable moments of this process was during the annual Day of the African Child celebrations – a day established to mark the Soweto Uprising of 1974, when hundreds of young people were killed by the South African authorities. The day is marked in countries across Africa, and is used as an opportunity to raise awareness of the need to improve education for African children. It is usually celebrated with singing and dancing. But instead, surprised District Leaders in Uganda were met with powerful words spoken from the CSRCs.
The District Leaders responded by saying they had come to see children sing and dance, but instead they had received these report cards and now they wanted to understand why they don’t feel safe. As a result, safety walls have been established in Ugandan schools identified by children as unsafe, and new police posts have also been set up.
War Child prioritises supporting children’s voices. The hope is that we develop data collection apps and procure tablets to support these voices to be heard quickly and powerfully. This will greatly aid the second round of the CSRC project to gauge changes in children’s perceived level of safety in some of the worst conflict affected countries where we support children. Our goal is to put children and the realisation of their rights at the heart of our humanitarian response – and to make sure their voices are heard by those charged with their protection.