Youth activists in Kenya hold festival of rights for children, & successfully demand action from politicians.

Watoto Wana Say – Swahili for ‘Children Have a Say’ – was the rallying cry from a festival of children’s rights held between 17-22 October in Mathare, Nairobi, run by student and youth activists in Kenya as part of 100 Million’s ‘When Will Every Child Have Justice?’ campaign.

The aim of the festival was to help young people understand their rights to freedom, safety, and education, and to support them to demand these rights directly from their representatives in the Senate and in Parliament, by creating a joint petition and delivering it at the end of the festival.

 

Working with and for Kenya’s most marginalised children

Over 150 children and young people participated in the festival, held in the informal settlement – or ‘slum’ – of Mathare. Home to around half a million citizens, Mathare has little in the way of public services, and children growing up in this area face exclusion from education and the dual threats of violence and child labour. Activists felt it was critical to hold the festival in Mathare to highlight the challenges faced by marginalised children in Kenya; they also worked to bring together out-of-school children with children from three local schools as well as university student leaders from Nairobi, emphasising the solidarity between young people, regardless of their backgrounds.

The event was centred around the Billian Music Family Leadership and Resource Center and included creative dance and music exhibitions and a youth-led press conference to raise public awareness of the event, which resulted in coverage in national media.

 

Youth activists learn how to demand their rights

Ten youth activists – representing the different groups of young people participating in the festival – joined a focused training session and worked with lawyers to learn more about holding their government to account. Repeated promises have been made in Kenyan national law and the constitution to deliver children’s basic rights, but as the young people discussed during the festival, many children have been repeatedly excluded: as well as children living in informal settlements, girls and children with disabilities face particular challenges.

Together, they created a detailed petition, which targeted core aspects of the constitution and law which are not being upheld. These include the right to free, compulsory education; access to public services and protection for the most marginalised; provision of sanitary products to girls in poorer communities; the end of exploitation of children as child labourers; and, under the compulsion to uphold and protect children’s rights, access to inclusive schools for children with disabilities. The petition identified which article of the constitution or point of law was being broken, and made specific demands focused on each one.

 

The March to Parliament

The festival closed with a 5km march from Mathare to the National Parliament and Senate on 22nd October. Walking through Mathare, taking in City Hall and stopping at the Supreme Court, the 178 youth activists participating chanted “WE HAVE RIGHTS” and “CHILDREN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS” through the streets, blocking the traffic and encouraging people to join them along the route. Once at Parliament, youth activists 10-year-old Mike Mutei and 14-year-old Beryl Akinyi presented their demands to politicians from the Caucus on Children: Kisumu Women’s Representative Hon. Rosa Buya, Kisii Women’s Representative Hon. Janet Ongera, and Sub-south Member of Parliament and chair of the caucus, Millie Odhiambo.

The march then ended at the Senate, where Mike and 13-year-old Epiffanie Crisphin presented the demands to Senator Isaac Mwaura, who represents people with disabilities and received the petition on behalf of the Senate.

 

Youth activism gets results!

When presenting their demands to politicians, the youth activists had an opportunity to explain why they were taking action by using their own experiences to illustrate the difficulties faced by marginalised children. Beryl and Epiffanie talked about the challenges that they and other children go through including paying school fees, even though in the 2010 Kenyan constitution education is stipulated to be free. They also talked about the challenge of being prevented from going to school during menstruation, as they cannot afford sanitary pads.

The petition and the personal stories told by the children on the march have already compelled politicians to act:

  • Senator Mwaura included the petition during his opening statement on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday 23rd October.
  • The women’s representatives have committed to ensuring sanitary products are in schools in marginalised areas and even promised to deliver some themselves in their constituencies.
  • Critically, the parliamentarians have already agreed to act on the demands of the young people and create a bill to address the issues raised. They committed to taking the draft bill back to the children and youth activists for review, before proposing it for discussion at the National Parliament later in the year.

These commitments represent a huge initial victory for the youth activists and the children of Kenya. However, they are not resting until the commitments are delivered: on leaving the parliament, the youth activists warned their representatives that they would be back on 10 December, Human Rights Day, to make sure the rights of children will be upheld.

In the words of one of the youth organisers:

Nothing for us, without us: there is so much still to be done.

You can still get involved & demand 'When Will Every Child Have Justice?' - find out more here.