Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

In 1976, thousands of black school children took to the streets of Soweto, South Africa. In a march stretching more than half a mile, they protested the inferior quality of their education and demanded their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down by security forces. In the two weeks of protests that followed, more than 100 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured.

To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity (now known as the African Union). Each year, ChildFund takes part in the day, which draws attention to the lives of African children today. This year’s theme was A Child-Friendly, Quality, Free and Compulsory Education for all Children in Africa.

Here are excerpts of speeches given by four young women enrolled in ChildFund Ethiopia’s programs, who spoke to the African Union in Addis Ababa on 16 June.

Eden, 16:

“Governments have the ability to give quality, free and compulsory education for all children in Africa by having a meeting with all African leaders and discuss the issues about what things can be done to create a better education system and prepare training for all African teachers.”

Helen, 14:

“Even though formal schooling is important, this is not enough. Our families are the people that we see when we first open our eyes. And we learn a lot of things from them and most importantly from the society. If a child is to be educated, then the contribution of families, society and friends is very important. This is because they build us in a very faithful, good manner. This is what we are looking forward to, and I believe we are on our way.”

Aziza, 15:

“Once upon a time, there were two young ladies. They were best friends, and they grew up in the same place. One of the girls has an interest to learn and study. Even when she was a child, she always asked questions. She loves asking and knowing different things. Even though the girl always wants to learn, her mother doesn’t have enough money to send her to school. So, because of their economic status, she spent her time helping her mom.

“The other girl never wants to go to school. She hates to study, but her family was rich. Even though she went to school, when she visits her smart friend, she brings her homework for her to do.

“When they grew up, both didn’t have happy endings. The rich girl has an unhappy ending because she didn’t study, and she was not strong. What about the smart girl? She was a smart, intelligent and hard-working girl, but she had an unhappy life because she didn’t have opportunities to learn. How did I know about the girl? Because she was my mother!

“She supports me, although she doesn’t have much money; she makes sure to buy me school materials and other essential things. By her strong heart, I haven’t any inferiority. Rather, I always worked hard to be an intelligent and smart girl, but the secret behind me is my dearest mother.”

Bemnet, 14:

“Disabled children are not being educated; they might not be in a position to fight for their right to be educated. We need to fight for their right and give them educational materials. To give disabled children an education, government and family have a main role. If we provide a free and quality education for children, they can easily get self-confidence and a good education, which enables them to be successful and responsible citizens.”

Papua New Guinea is a surprising place. It is a land of untamed, rugged beauty with warm and friendly people. It can also be a violent and confronting place to live and work.

I am constantly reminded of the incredibly dichotomy of life here: the generosity of spirit contrasted with incredible acts of hate, extreme poverty and affluence existing side by side, a passive acceptance of life coupled with destructive violence.

I have been welcomed by colleagues and rural villagers, and been thanked by people on the street for making an effort to understand PNG and its diverse, complex cultures. I have run the streets as part of the Trukai Olympic Day Fun Run surrounded by 30,000 people. I am working among amazing, life-charged Papua New Guineans who are working to make a difference in their country, and succeeding.

Yet there also exists a darker side to PNG life. To truly understand this, you need to spend some time here, speaking to the locals and seeing the world through their eyes.

Life in Port Moresby is hard. It is an expensive place to live and often unsafe on the streets. People arrive here from other provinces hoping to find work and a better life, yet many find only hardship that traps them here and perpetuates the poverty cycle. Rent for even basic accommodation can run upwards of $250 per week to $2,000 per week in expat areas. Bearing in mind minimum wage is less than $1 per hour and even professionals often take home only $125 per week. Desperation often drives desperate acts, from pickpocketing to armed robbery and car-jacking.

Security dominates everything. It is tighter for expats, who generally live in razor-wire surrounded compounds, moving about in safe areas of the city and often with an escort. These advantages are not available to average Papua New Guineans, who have to navigate the crowded streets, markets and public buses in a heightened state of alert.

I get regular security advice from many of my PNG colleagues, who advise on where it is safe for me to visit, how I should dress in certain situations and how to act in a culturally appropriate manner. And I find it exhausting. Constantly being alert to changes in the behaviour of people on the street, monitoring and scanning to detect potential threats and being mentally prepared for what I will do in a multitude of different scenarios. Will I run? Can I fight back? What if there is a weapon involved?

But security precautions cannot shield me from what I have witnessed on the street. A woman’s bruised face, a female settler living nearby being hit and not being able to help her, accounts of female Papua New Guinean friends being followed by a car when returning to the office from lunch. These same friends won’t travel on buses without a male escort and often aren’t willing to take their children shopping for fear of being harassed. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all was hearing the story of a four-year old girl who was sexually assaulted. These are but a few examples of what many women and children face daily.