It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon and I am on the shores of Lake Tanganyika with a group of children, some local musicians and a camera crew. The hills on the Congolese side of the lake are barely visible through the haze. We’re gathered here to shoot the Burundi version of the famous song Imagine, John Lennon’s classic hymn to peace, to encourage listeners to imagine a better world for children.
What is a better world for children? In my eyes, it’s one where every right of every child is fulfilled. When we talk about children’s rights, we often think of well-known rights such as the right to health and to education. But there’s a right that is often overlooked – and without which none of the other rights could be fulfilled. It’s the right to expression.
Too often, children are not asked for their ideas and opinions. They are positioned as objects – people that are talked about, not people that talk themselves. Traditional attitudes and perceptions of children – of them being less competent than adults, of them lacking knowledge, of parents knowing better than children – continue to push children into that role. In a country where the average citizen is a child (51% of the Burundian population is under 18), that’s unacceptable.
Increasing spaces in media for children is essential. But sometimes there are things that children don’t want to express through talking or writing, and when you give them a sheet of paper and a crayon they’ll tell you exactly what’s on their mind. The same time goes for theatre and singing.
So it’s about fulfilling children’s right to expression through the channels that are the most appropriate for them. Here at UNICEF Burundi, we’ve been multiplying opportunities for expression through the arts – whether that’s through drawing, painting, theatre, or music.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, we organized a nationwide drawing contest on A Better World for Children, with children producing drawings that will be transferred to a large scale, as murals on the new UNICEF building in Bujumbura. Another set of drawings became frescoes on the brand-new re-education center for children in conflict with the law in Ruyigi.
Imagine, which we launched on the International Day of Children in Broadcasting, is also a call to action to give children their right to expression through music. Using traditional Burundian instruments including tambours and umuduri, it is co-led by the famous Burundian singer Yoya Jamal, well-known for his work with youth and in favor of peace. Weeks later, the soft sound of the song is still heard wafting out of windows and from car radios.
We need to give more space to children to express themselves through art and music – but it also needs to be art and music that is seen, heard, and taken seriously by adults, not relegated to the status of children’s art.
And in the current context, as we evaluate the MDGs, this is especially crucial. Children and young people will be the torchbearers of the next development agenda and we must make sure they are not just telling us what they imagine a better world to be, but that they are taking a leading role in it helping us create it.
Eliane Luthi is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Burundi