This question is all too relevant as our country waits in uncertainty over its future, and with the largest youth population there has ever been, we are in an era of peak youth. Therefore, this is not a question to be answered in ten years, or even in five years time. This is a question to be answered now.
So, what does happen if we young people’s voices are heard? This was a question I asked myself many times during my three month stay in Zambia, with the youth-led organisation, Restless Development. During these three months, I lived with a Zambian family who welcomed me into their home in the rural community of Hamududu. With my three fellow team members, we worked with the locals to work on sustainable development. Before living and working in Zambia, I naively thought that change could not be successful without the backing and support of community leaders and critically, the influence of adults. How wrong I was.
During these three months, it was clear that our community faced a number of challenges. When we reached out to the school to ask if we could discuss topics such as, sexual health and human rights, with the children, the inequality became more obvious. Starting in the younger grades, the classes were filled to bursting with them having fifty plus pupils. These grades had a relatively equal ratio of girls to boys. However, as we began to speak with the older grades, the number of girls attending school was dramatically decreasing. When we got to grade nine (the oldest class), classes had no more than fifteen pupils, with very few girls. Not only were there less girls but they were no longer participating in debates, leaving their male peers to debate topics such as gender roles and gender based violence. The opinionated girls, who in grade four, were aspiring to be doctors and teachers were now sitting in class, in grade nine, not challenging the views of their peers and being constrained by society’s expectations of them. This bothered me. Where were these girls going? And what was happening between grades four and nine that was having such a dramatic effect on their confidence and aspirations?
The answer? Girls get married and have children. I did not understand why these reasons meant they could no longer attend school because why would these issues be affecting girls as young as 12? Unfortunately this is far too common in rural Zambia. I had been aware that child marriage and early pregnancy were issues within our community, as many concerned community members had brought it to our team’s attention. However, the extent of this problem only became too clear when we began at the school.
So our team listened to the children of Hamududu. We discussed gender equality in school, started debates and began to change opinions, but this was just the beginning. We decided to help the children of Hamududu organise a local event, inviting business owners and the deputy mayor to discuss the importance of ending child marriage and keeping girls in education.
After a couple of weeks meeting local businesses and government officials, event day was here. The pupils stood side by side, boys and girls, and marched from the school, through the community and to the clinic, chanting ‘keep our girls in school, not in marriage’. We marched, we shouted, we sang and we played music, because the children of Hamududu wanted to be heard, and they certainly were. I think I can speak for everyone in my team by saying that this was one of our proudest and most inspiring moments from our three months working together. Seeing the children, who started out sitting quietly in class when we began to question gender roles within society, now standing together as a force to be reckoned with, demanding change from their society was awe inspiring.
So I ask again, what happens if we listen? We get five hundred people all discussing the importance of gender equality within education, and ending child marriage. These issues may not have been solved in our small three months in Hamududu, but we have started an extremely important conversation, and I like to think that these children are inspired by seeing the power they have, when they are motivated and work together.
The peak youth generation have the power and potential to solve some of the worlds toughest challenges. Ask their opinions and give them a voice to let them answer. Young people are the leaders of today, not tomorrow. Let’s use our voices to be heard and create change!