U-Reporters show faith leaders how technology can help eliminate practices that harm children’s rights, health and chances in life, writes BLESSINGS PHUMISA from Unicef Malawi
Lisa Banda is passionate about changing her community for the better and wants to help eliminate harmful practices such as child marriage and gender-based violence.
The 23-year-old ambassador for U-Report, a social messaging tool and data collection system developed by Unicef, recently addressed a group of faith-based leaders on the alarming data collected by the tool.
“Young people need to be protected and we trust faith leaders to take the lead because your voice matters to us,” she said.
The data shows that 64 percent of the 31 756 U-reporters, who participated in a nationwide poll on harmful practices, said banned marriage before 18 was commonplace in their communities.
This was one of the recent U-Report polls by the Spotlight Initiative by the government, United Nations, European Union and civil society.
The programme focuses on eliminating violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence as well as harmful practices.
U-Report and the Spotlight Initiative have run several polls among young people across Malawi to assess their levels of knowledge and attitudes on issues such as harmful practices, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services, and social norms and practices.
Speaking to about 60 faith leaders during the Workrock on Faith and Positive Change for Children workshop at Mponela in Dowa, Banda said it was important for these influential people to speak up and demand an end to harmful practices and negative social norms.
“You are agents for behaviour change and your voice matters in your community,” she said. “You can use your influence on effecting positive change.”
Banda was one of five ambassadors who attended the workshop to showcase U-Report inroads to combat violations of children’s rights.
Designed to improve citizen engagement, inform leaders and foster positive change, the digital tool sends SMS polls and alerts to participants, collecting real-time responses and subsequently publishes gathered data.
The findings are shared with policymakers to foster advocacy and help ensure that the voices of young people are heard.
Banda said the faith community can use the nationwide network of 220 000 U-Reporters as a powerful communication tool for advocacy on various issues affecting young people, including violence against children and sexual and gender-based violence.
“I feel that as much as we belong to different religions, we are always stronger when we work together for a common good. Our difference gives us an advantage to tackle various problems by exploring different avenues,” she said.
Unicef Malawi country representative Rudolf Schwenk stressed the positive influence faith-based organisations can have on the wellbeing of children.
“When religious leaders speak, people listen. So, we hope with them, we can collectively address the issue of child marriage which is currently very high in Malawi at 47 percent,” he said.
Although the laws criminalise marriages involving boys and girls aged below 18, the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey shows that almost half of Malawian women—47 percent—still marry before their 18th birthday. About a third of adolescent girls were pregnant during the nationwide survey.
The faith leaders met under the banner of Faith and Positive Change for Children, a global initiative on social and behaviour change aimed at strengthening Unicef partnership with faith actors for positive outcomes.
At the end of the meeting, leaders made a commitment to build action plans to ramp up efforts to pomote child protection and dial back rights violations, especially child marriage which remain widespread.
Dr Esme Kainja, then principal secretary in the Ministry of Information and Civic Education, said she was impressed that young people such as U-Reporters have jumped to the frontline fighting practices that harm children’s rights and chances in life.
“Child marriage is a large driver of poverty in this country. For the future of Malawi, we need to promote education and strong partnerships,” she said.