Voices of the most vulnerable children heard at Rwanda’s annual National Children’s Summit

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By Suzanne Beukes

KIGALI, Rwanda, 11 January 2012 – Once a year, the seats of Rwanda’s parliament are filled with children.

VIDEO: 4 January 2012 - UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on the 7th National Children's Summit, an important step forward for child rights in Rwanda.

During the National Children’s Summit, youths from all over the country gather to issue recommendations on how to make the country a better place for children.

This year, the 7th National Children’s Summit was attended by over 500 youths, as well as some of the nation’s top policy makers, including Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Aloisea Inyumba, as well as other ministers, governors, religious leaders, mayors and vice mayors.

The event has been held annually since 2004, but this year’s summit was special: It was the first to include children with disabilities, those from orphanages and those from the country’s refugee camps as representatives of Rwanda’s 416 sectors.

An inclusive event

In the weeks leading up to the event, thousands of children around the country participated in pre-summit consultations. Nine-year-old Clenia Umuhoza, who lost both her parents, felt empowered by the consultation she attended.

“I found this meeting quite interesting because it focuses on the most vulnerable children. These children are like me,” she said.

On 4 January, 17-year-old Mukandayisenga Alodie attended the summit in Kigali. "We are very happy, as children with disabilities, to attend this meeting because during the last meetings we were not invited,” she said.

Mukandayisenga’s inclusion meant she was able to advocate on behalf of children like her. She said that she has seen much improvement in recent years, but more must to be done to provide better school access to children with disabilities.

“For example, the suggestion that I gave previously was to adapt the entrance of the classrooms steps and to reduce the height of the black board. This has been taken into consideration," she said.

Participants’ recommendations to the government emphasized the need to include children with disabilities in all forums and the need to implement better social protections for vulnerable children. They also focused on ending violence against children, eliminating malnutrition, and guaranteeing the right of all children to grow up in a family environment. They additionally called on making sports and electricity available in all schools.

The event was aired live on Rwandan television and radio, and was accessible by social media. Children around the country were able to text their suggestions to participants at the summit and to call in with questions for the government officials in attendance.

Contributing to Rwanda’s future

Organized by the National Children’s Commission, in partnership with the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, UNICEF, and other partners, the summit was designed to empower children and to enable them to contribute to the country’s second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS).

Rwanda has made great strides in improving its economy and social services; the country is currently on track to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals. Still, 77 per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. And with one of the youngest populations in the world, Rwanda will not be able maintain its forward momentum without the participation of its young people.

Summit participants are pleased their voices were heard – but they also want results. Officials at the event promised to oblige: Prime Minister Habumuremyi committed to addressing their recommendations.

“This is a very inclusive summit,” said Ms. Inyumba, “and in a way the recommendations that come out of the summit will be binding to the policy makers and definitely will be included in the EDPRS.”

“I feel full of hope,” said UNICEF Representative in Rwanda Noala Skinner, “that the footprint of children – and in particular the promotion and protection of the rights of the most vulnerable children and families – will be firmly planted in the nation’s new Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy.”

It may be many years before any of these children return to the parliament building as leaders. But this year’s summit shows they won’t have to wait that long to help determine their country’s future.