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The power of voice

18 July 2018, Voices from the Field

Giving young people a platform to have their say

When you read stories and see images of Save the Children’s work around the world, chances are those stories have been captured by an outsider. Likewise, how children access information in our programs is often prescribed by a development professional.

It’s a necessary part of the work organisations like ours do. Yet we also want more young people to be empowered to tell their own stories, and to participate more fully in how information is shared.

At Save the Children, we’ve been giving children and young people the chance to be heard and to contribute to information that can change their lives. It’s a potent combination that gives children voice and agency. From participatory photography to mapping their cities, here are three ways we use technology and media to give children a platform to have their say.1

Giving children cameras

Giving children cameras has become a well-known method for seeing the realities of life through a child’s eyes. In situations where children are often not truly listened to, putting a camera in their hands can give them a visual voice, especially when the images they produce reach far and wide.

Syrian children inside Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan were given cameras and training as part of a collaboration between Save the Children and Magnum photographer, Michael Christopher Brown. Life in a refugee camp, photographed by the children who live there, can throw up some perspectives an outsider would never capture.

They documented their surroundings, worries and the things they look forward to and, for two years, these children shared their images on a joint Instagram account called Inside Za’atari. For once, they were in charge of how their stories were told to the outside world.

The images captured by children on Inside Za’atari were sometimes rough and raw, but the stories we see and hear don’t necessarily need to be polished and professional to have impact.

“Any one of these kids has the potential to become a good photographer. Perhaps even a great photographer … what they need is our support and our encouragement, to realise their potential,” said Michael. 

The impact? With confidence, they were able to tell the world they were children and young people with potential and dreams, waiting for change. The photos show they are resilient and resourceful, and hopeful – not just victims of a terrible war. 

A similar participatory photo project, Girls with Cameras, set out to highlight the experiences of girls in parts of rural Nepal, and give them the chance to document some of the challenges in their lives. 

“I had never used a camera in my life,”  explained 16-year-old Sanju. In her community, girls are not given the same opportunity as boys, and certainly not the chance to be vocal about what matters to them. 

With a camera, Sanju and girls like her had a tool they could use to talk about the things they cared and worried about. One participant took pictures of her chhaugoth, a shed where girls and women stay each month when they are menstruating. Others documented child labour and exploitation in an effort to raise awareness about what was happening to children in their communities. 

“I want to be a journalist,”  said a participant, named Kamala. “I want to take pictures of all the bad things happening in our village, and also highlight the positive aspects.”

Community Radio

Getting kids on the radio can provide an opportunity for children to participate on bigger issues that are usually left to powerful policy makers and governments – and it can be as simple as a recording studio and a network of battery-operated radios. 

In two separate radio stations in the Philippines, young presenters have been taking to the airwaves on climate change. Hosting their own radio program has given them the chance to be heard on a global issue that will inevitably impact them at the local level. 

Children helped design the content. They discussed science, how to prepare for disasters, the impacts of climate change on child rights and on their families’ ability to earn an income.

Their audience was other young listeners their age, as well as adults in their community, and the show opened up dialogue among these children on what changes children and adults could make to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Wena – one of the young radio presenters in the project – highlighted the stoic role of the radio in a time when there is greater reliance on digital technology. “People can hear the radio even if electricity is out. It is very important for people to know about climate change because it will matter to their survival.” 

Battery operated radios can still be heard in communities where disaster has taken out other forms of communication, and in incredibly remote communities without power. In Ethiopia, this is exactly where radios have the most impact – in mountainous villages where there is no other way of accessing information. 

Save the Children has been using radio in Ethiopia a little bit like school of the air. Radio programs sent information over the airwaves to groups of children, who would gather around a radio on a weekly basis. The programs talked about critical issues like child marriage and trafficking, and the right children had to say no. 

Although the content was designed by Save the Children program staff, children presented the information on air. And, in each village, children from the local community led discussions among their listening groups.

Muluken, led the listening group in his village, Kossoye: “The program has changed my life. I used to feel ashamed … But the program helped me overcome that and I have the confidence to think like other Ethiopians do,”  said Muluken. “If a community is educated and I am educated, it leads the country to develop.”

Over four years, the program established 195 listening groups, for all ages. And in that time, more than 1,600 child marriages were cancelled because, not only did children have access to information about the harmful effects of early marriage for the first time, they had the opportunity to participate in how that information was shared. 

Digital participation

Access to digital technology and data is also an issue for many children and adults living in remote villages, or in dense megacities like Dhaka in Bangladesh where Save the Children has been working in slum communities to help solve an information crisis.

Our open-source digital app and website, Kolorob, was developed with the help of young people in these slum communities, and it has helped to address a significant digital divide.

Most people in these communities go uncounted and unmapped by their government and the private sector. This can result in a severe lack of information on how to access essential services because slums and informal settlements are not officially recognised by these institutions. Residents can miss out on education, healthcare and jobs.

We asked young people who lived in these informal settlements to map, on foot, the services that were important to their community. We then fed this data into Open Street Maps (OSM) and Open Data Kit (ODK) – two open source tools that are neutral and transparent, and which anyone can use.

“Using OSM and ODK encourages participation and ownership over the collection and use of data – this is really important when large companies like Facebook and Google have monopolised the use and processing of individual data,”  explained Save the Children’s David Sweeting, who worked on this project.
“Young people were genuinely interested in mapping and understanding their city in new ways. OSM provided the platform for them to do this.”
Kolorob gives users more control over accessing information and more opportunity to make better choices. And, through the development of Kolorob and participation from young people, we have developed a spin-off website and mobile application to provide more opportunities to find employment, and technical and vocational training.

Changing the power balance

Projects like these that put decision-making in the hands of children and young people can bring important self-development, realise communication rights, and enable participants to develop new skills while taking control of their own representation. In the grand scheme of our work, we have so many wonderful programs that enable children to participate and expand their knowledge. But when it comes to media and technology, we probably don’t do this enough. 

Stories and information from a child’s perspective can be a precious and enlightening experience. But even more than that, it can bring to attention the reality that children have strong desires for change, as well as needs that are not always met. Giving them a platform and the tools to communicate their view gives children voice. We just need to make sure we’re also there to listen and act. 

Marian Reid is a freelance writer, specialising in international development. She has been working with Save the Children since 2014

Photos: Save the Children.

1. In our participatory media projects, we always follow strict procedures to keep children safe. We always ask for consent from parents and caregivers of children before publishing their stories. If they agree, they complete a ‘consent for use’ form, explaining they are offering their imagery for Save the Children’s own use. We also require child photographers to ask for consent from their subjects in the same way. 

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