Around the world, children are empowering themselves by using their voices to speak up about the issues affecting them. Today, few concerns are more pressing than COVID-19. The pandemic has spared no country and has only compounded the serious challenges children in vulnerable places already face.
Those children aren’t giving up though.
Quite the opposite. A new generation of leaders is springing up from amongst sponsored children in each of these communities. They’re full of energy, ideas and hope. These are their stories.
Tatenda from Zimbabwe
Youth leader Tatenda is calling on world leaders to address climate change that has worsened the impact of drought on his community. Photo: Brianna Piazza
Every day, either before or after school, Tatenda works about two hours fetching water for his family from the community borehole. Ideally, it’s not how the 13-year-old should be spending so much of his time, but he wants to help his family. Blessed with a big heart, he extends that sentiment to his classmates as well.
In class Tatenda is a youth leader, engaging with his fellow students to find ways to improve their school. But there are obstacles in the way. He recognizes they’re connected to the drought that has dried up rivers and devastated crops. He says the drought makes it difficult for farming communities like his to thrive.
The result is that some children have no breakfast before school, struggle to concentrate and may end up dropping out entirely. It’s a prime example of how fateful the impact of disasters, man-made or otherwise, can be on a community’s long-term development. And it will take global action to effectively mitigate this impact.
To that end, Tatenda is calling on world leaders to respond to climate change and help communities like his build resilience in the face of increasingly frequent and severe drought. He says, “When I grow up, I want to be a government minister, so I can help people who have been effected by disasters like drought and floods.”
Sarai from Honduras
Sarai uses music to help build community, and raise awareness and pride in Indigenous Lenca traditions. Photo: Jon Warren
Sarai is all about building. The 16-year-old wants to be an architect and she’s also doing her part to strengthen her community, Yamaranguila. Her main tool for community building? Music.
Along with three high-school bandmates, all student leaders and achievers, Sarai is part of a 35-member ensemble representing her school and the Indigenous Lenca people. Together they play spirited, soulful music at public events as far away as the capital Tegucigalpa, about 200 kms from home. Sarai plays trombone and describes the band as a metaphor for community organizing and working in harmony with others: sometimes you step out front to play a solo and lead, other times you blend into the chorus.
“I hope with this music, our students will be agents of change in our communities,” says Evaristo Menjivar, a teacher at the Lenca Institute, the school Sarai attends.
Her school in Yamaranguila is the focal point of building community resilience that begins with the children and youth. Along with other organizations, it’s helping to bring back traditional clothing, food, and crafts to instill pride in the strength of Lenca ways. In addition, students are learning to grow vegetables in kitchen gardens, while classes in subjects as varied as finance and auto mechanics directly connect youth to employment opportunities.
Edren from the Philippines
Edren’s Go Bikers hit the road to help people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Lanelyn Carillo
Youth council leader Edren understands heartache. Both his father and grandmother perished from heart attacks, losses he blames on a failure to get them immediate medical care. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic currently affecting the Philippines, he’s determined to spare others similar pain.
Along with two friends, Edren started a project called Go Bike in March 2019. Its work provides his hometown of Pangasinan and surrounding communities with basic health services, as well as advocating for disaster preparedness.
"During ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), we noticed that most of our community members could not go to health-care centers for a health check,” Edren explains. “It was nearly 50 degrees Celsius and we knew that checking blood pressure is vital to monitoring one's health. Our trained and equipped Go Bikers conducted basic checking and monitoring of vital signs.” These included temperature, blood pressure, pulse, respiration and blood sugar testing.
Accessing Go Bike’s services is simple: call or text a Go Biker and someone will pedal over to provide assistance.
The project isn’t without its challenges, from sourcing funding, to training volunteers, to the inherent health risks of connecting with others during COVID-19. But Edren perseveres because he knows Go Bike’s effort is helping to blunt the impact of the deadly pandemic.
"I admit that we are concerned about our health as well whenever we do our job. But people need help,” he says. “So we wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), religiously wash our hands, sanitize equipment and keep ourselves healthy. These are our golden rules. We are fully aware of what will happen if we don’t follow them.”
Fatou from Senegal
Fatou, middle, participates in a radio broadcast where she gives information to help children in her community protect themselves from harm. Photo: Alexandre Amadou Gassama
Fearless talk is a trademark of Fatou’s approach to confronting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the attitudes that worsen its impact. The 21-year-old youth leader in central Senegal’s Mabo community uses TV, radio and social media to spread COVID-19 awareness and help protect children from harm of all kinds.
“Today, due to the spread of the coronavirus and false information, people rarely go to health centres — especially women who need pre- and post-natal visits,” she attests. “This exposes children, weakens their [immune] systems and endangers them with diseases.”
With support from World Vision to provide handwashing kits, she advocates for a two-pronged approach. It’s one that balances the immediate need for pandemic protection with the long-term value of increased health education.
“Education is a fundamental right, as much as health,” she says. “Dear parents, at this time of school reopening, enforce the [distancing] measures for children to protect them from the coronavirus.”
But everyone has a role to play. To her peers she says, “We ask that you avoid unnecessary contact and travel. Go straight to school and go straight home. COVID-19, although it affects children less, does not spare them.”
Amir from Bosnia and Herzegovina
World Vision volunteers in Bosnia and Herzegovina help gather supplies for distribution to people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Nejra Baltes
The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how fragile even the wealthiest, most technologically sophisticated communities can be. But worldwide, it has also revealed how people are willing to come together to help family, friends — and strangers. In this way, true community is being built. Previously ravaged by war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one such place where children and youth are actively leading the push for a better future.
Amir, once a sponsored child, is among those young people. He’s been volunteering his time and skills to help migrants, refugees, children, and others who have been made vulnerable by the health crisis.
In March 2020, World Vision’s teams in Bosnia and Herzegovina suspended their regular activities in favour of responding to the effects of the pandemic. Amir and a group of other volunteers aged 16-25 stepped in to help. These are the young people safely distributing hygiene items, food packages, and any necessary medication. They’ve also been safely visiting children with disabilities and helping school-age children with their homework.
The young leaders’ capacity has been built up through years of investment in their skills and knowledge by local World Vision workers. But their drive comes from compassion for their fellow human being.
As well as supporting his neighbours through this crisis, Amir is committed to helping local children become healthy, contributing members of their community for the long term. Today, he runs Life Skills workshops for kids at the child sponsorship program he used to attend.
Roslinda from Indonesia
Roslinda had an exciting opportunity to speak before the United Nations. The 15-year-old used her time to advocate for children less fortunate than her. Photo: Yuventa Chang
Achieving child empowerment starts with allowing children’s voices to be heard. When Roslinda, 15, had an opportunity to speak before the United Nations in August 2020, she took it. As for many elsewhere across the world, her concern was the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on her community.
Roslinda spoke about a recently released World Vision International report, “Unmasking the Impact of COVID-19 on Asia’s Most Vulnerable Children.” The nine-country assessment surveyed 26,269 people and included 10,060 children. The findings weren’t surprising, though still heartbreaking. Among them:
- 26 per cent of respondents reported physical and psychological abuse of children by caregivers
- 61 per cent of respondents said the pandemic had negatively affected their livelihood
- 5 per cent of households were dealing with mental health issues
World Vision Indonesia conducted a similar review and found, for example, that only 68 per cent of children had access to distance learning. The remaining children did not, due to financial constraints and a lack of teachers and facilities. In her UN speech, Roslinda made a point of stressing the importance of access to education, noting that declining incomes made getting online increasingly difficult for many families.
However, Roslinda also noted the immediate public health concern and called on stakeholders to make protecting children’s health a priority.
“During the pandemic, we are also required to diligently wash our hands, but not all areas have access to clean water,” she said. “I am lucky, because even though I have to buy water or walk long distances to get water, our parents are able to provide hand-washing facilities. I hope the stakeholders can provide solutions to what the children have been facing during the pandemic.”
With files from: World Vision staff