In Burundi, where infrastructure challenges abound, making sure children and young people can speak up about the issues they face can be an enormous challenge.
And in Burundi, making sure children can speak up means not only fulfilling a basic right of theirs, it’s also very logical. Youth under 18 make up 51% of the population here – meaning the average Burundian is a child.
The vast majority of these young people live in remote, isolated areas in Burundi’s lush green collines (hills) – and many of them are orphans or vulnerable children, including children living with disabilities, who generally have even more difficulties sharing and accessing information than others.
“There are young people from the collines who want to share their ideas but have no way to do it,” says Samuel, 17, a member of the National Children’s Forum from Kirundo province.
Ensuring children can express themselves means making sure they have access to the right type of platform for them. That platform can be something as simple as a very basic mobile phone.
While only 3% of the population of Burundi has regular access to electricity, according to the latest available figures, there are just over 25 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in the country*. And while this is much lower than in nearby countries like Uganda (46 per 100) or Kenya (72 per 100), it presents an exciting opportunity for children and young people.
And that opportunity is why we’ve been running U-report, a free SMS-based service that helps youth and community volunteers to share opinions and issues that are important to them. In the few short months that U-report has been live, over 10,000 people – most of them youth – have already become U-reporters. To me, that’s a clear sign that youth are hungry to access information and to express themselves. They just need the right platforms to do so.
“U-report will help us young people,” says Frank, 17, from Bujumbura. “Young people are afraid of saying things out loud. But by writing things through U-report, we can express our difficulties more easily.”
And that’s the beauty of this anonymous, text-based system. It allows youth to bring up issues that are close to their heart but that they may not feel comfortable talking about in person. U-reporters in Burundi often ask us for information on things like reproductive health and education, and they also ask for tips and tools that they can use in their communities. In just a few short months, over 80,000 messages have been exchanged over U-report.
Sometimes children don’t have access to mobile phones, but they may have access to other sources of information – like radio, the number one medium in Burundi. Through radio partnerships, poll results and issues being raised via U-report are also being discussed on air. Children may also know other children, like members of the National Children’s Forum or child journalists, who have access to media and decision-makers and can advocate on their behalf.
Making sure children have access to the right kind of platform is not just about finding a way to amplify their voices – it’s also enabling them as future citizens and leaders of their country to play a role in building a positive and peaceful tomorrow. And in country where the average citizen is under 18, that’s of capital importance.
Eliane Luthi is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Burundi.
*Data on mobile penetration is from the International Telecommunications Union.