Before joining ChildFund in Laos activities, 16-year-old Xaykham from Khoun District, Xiengkhouang Province had never heard of a children’s forum.
“I never knew there were activities where children could share their thoughts and opinions,” he said.
Traditionally, children’s voices in Laos have not been given serious attention, particularly in the public sphere of decision-making. That’s what makes opportunities such as the National Children’s Forum, an annual event co-hosted by ChildFund in Laos and the National Commission for the Advancement of Women and Mothers-Children (NCAWMC), so vital.
Xaykham has been lucky enough to participate in two such events in recent years. In addition to this year’s Children’s Forum, he was also able to join a 2019 event commemorating 30 years since the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the event child representatives from all the Lao provinces had an opportunity to meet and bring their concerns on issues affecting them to stakeholders at the national level.
But Xaykham (pictured above at the 2020 Lao Children’s Forum) is in the minority.
Xaykham said it was particularly important for children in places like his home province of Xiengkhouang to be able to participate in activities such as the Children’s Forum. In his area, he said, there were few opportunities where children could demonstrate their abilities. There might be some chances for children to show their talents in sports or singing, but as for providing their thoughts and opinions, or speaking out, there were not really any platforms.
When he heard about the Children’s Forum, which is now in its third year in Laos, Xaykham was enthusiastic to participate. “I wanted to have the chance to speak as a youth representative,” he said. “In my community, most children still lack opportunities. I wanted to speak out to represent youth in my district and to tell adult leaders and authorities about the problems children in my community are facing.”
Stepping out of comfort zones
Xaykham was not the only one making the most of his time at the forum. Sixteen-year-old Namfonh, who is from Vientiane Capital and was the MC at the forum, was attending the event for the first time after hearing about it through a peer at her school who was part of ChildFund’s Ready for Life project.
“Since the forum, I have wanted to have new experiences and open opportunities for myself, to do things I’ve never done before,” Namfonh said.
Namfonh and Xaykham are both taking part in ChildFund’s Ready for Life project, which aims to empower young people through developing their decision-making, critical thinking and life skills, and increasing their opportunities to participate in change, and voice their opinions, in their communities.
“Before joining the Ready for Life project, I was shy and didn’t dare to speak out,” Xaykham said. “It was something I never had the chance to do. There were some times that I did have the chance, but I didn’t dare to take it.
Namfonh had a similar experience. “When my teachers used to ask questions, I would know the answer, but I wouldn’t dare to say it.” She smiled as she thought of how shy and fearful she had been in the past. “Even if it was just my friends inviting me to go out with them, I wouldn’t dare to go!”