Madeline Serena, Senior Project Co-ordinator at A World at School, reports from a powerful day at the African Union.
On 16 June, I had the privilege of attending the Day of the African Child Youth Takeover event held at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
My team and I arrived with hundreds of passionate, articulate and courageous youth who work every day to achieve a better education for all children.
One was Saatah, a 16-year-old girl from Liberia, who is part of Plan International’s Youth Delegation. Saatah led the opening call to action, demanding that African leaders take action to address the 57 million children out of school, more than half of whom are in their own backyard - sub-Saharan Africa.
Saatah told a story of her friend in elementary school who dreamed of becoming a doctor. She was bright, ambitious and had a promising future ahead of her if she continued on this path.
She reminded me of myself at that age, believing I could achieve anything if I worked hard and stayed in school. However, her mother was unable to continue paying school fees, forcing her to take her daughter out of school.
Things deteriorated further and the mother married her off at the age of 13. And no matter how horrific this is, it’s reality: one in nine girls in the region are married by the age of 15.
Saatah ‘s friend is an example of a child’s future being decided for her, of a girl being seen as an entity to throw away and of what the situation of education for girls is in so many African countries and other nations around the world.
The day before, my colleague Chernor and I worked with Saatah to help her find the words to express her story. I told her that today she is the most powerful person in the room. She needed to speak with passion and demand that these policymakers and government officials do something about the current status of education in Africa.
Members of the Plan delegation outside the African Union
While practising her speech, we spoke of how policymakers most often come from privileged backgrounds where a good education is not only assumed, it is something they forget that millions of children risk their lives to achieve every day.
As Saatah spoke in the African Union, I could not help but watch the faces of the leaders present. Would they react the way we hoped and be moved to action? Or were they so used to hearing sentimental, heart-wrenching stories that they have learned to tune them out?
As Saatah‘s voice resounded through the halls of the African Union, telling everyone that all children have the RIGHT to go to school, they listened and understood that this is an issue which cannot wait another day. And even though I had heard her speech countless times, it nevertheless moved me to tears.
This brief portion of the day’s events perfectly symbolises the greater purpose of the Youth Takeover. Young people have a voice, a strong voice, and they all need to use it.
Later in the day, during a panel session, AU Youth Officer Raymonde A. Agossou stated that children cannot just wait for things to come to them. They must go out and make things happen.
She told young people: “Your voice needs to be heard; your participation is the most important thing.”
Mrs Agossou could not be more correct.
As I told Saatah while working on her speech, your voice - the voice of young people - means more than anything I could say and more than the voice of any policymaker. No one can move people to tears and make others understand the struggle to get an education the way young people can.
Adults can eloquently talk about the importance of education (having received it) but youth can express what it’s like to struggle to get to school, to learn in a class with 50 other children or what it is like to have themselves or their best friend married at 13 because their family is so impoverished.
As A World at School partners and Global Youth Ambassadors held more than 130 events in 53 countries, they collectively showed the world that they care and are here to achieve that change. And they will not rest until every one of the 57 million out-of-school children are in school and learning.