The President arrived right on time, neatly dressed in a white tee-shirt and jeans. Christian is the President of the Children’s Parliament in Central African Republic (CAR). He apologetically says that none of the others parliamentarians could make it because there were so many roadblocks in Bangui that day.
Christian just turned 18 and he started with the Children’s Parliament when he was 16. That was nearly two years ago in December 2012 exactly when the Seleka rebels first began to take over towns in the North triggering the last two years of violence in CAR. “It was because of these events that I wanted to participate in the Children’s Parliament and what motivated me to defend children’s rights,” he said.
In his role as President, he has spoken to the Government, the UN Peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, and has been interviewed on the radio several times speaking on the situation of young people like himself. On the anniversary of the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, he will be organizing a debate on the right to education and child rights in CAR in collaboration with UNICEF. “What I would like to know is what has been accomplished for children’s rights over the last 25 years. Have children’s rights in CAR been respected? Are they really going to be able to go back to school in this fragile context?”
Christian says one of the best parts of being President is being exposed to new ideas. “Being part of the Children’s Parliament is preparing me for the future. It taught me how to work in a group and how to overcome difficulties,” he said. Through social media, Christian and his fellow parliamentarians have been following the Children’s Parliament in Cairo with great interest and have been impressed that some of their recommendations were presented at the National Assembly.
“It is really inspiring to see young people contributing to the development of their country. I want the same thing for CAR,” he said. Christian says that sometimes he gets frustrated because as much as he tries to plan ahead, activities are moving too slow or get stalled completely. Since 2013, CAR has seen three Presidents and a coup d’etat. “There has been so many changes in the country, but we cannot wait to keep starting again,” he said.
In the last two years of crisis, life has not been easy for Christian. His family lives near the Bangui airport, an area that was particularly hard hit by a surge of violence last December. For three months, Christian stayed home because schools were closed. “Sometimes I would take out my books and try to read, but then we would hear gunshots and we would have to hide.” At the height of the crisis, nearly one million people were displaced, equal to one fifth of the population, the majority of whom were women and children. His family took in displaced families fleeing violence and in 2013 when his mother died, he was left to help take care of six brothers and sisters.
“This crisis has touched everyone and has been especially hard for children living in the interior of the country,” he said. Of the 32 members of the Children’s Parliament spread across the country, six had to relocate to Bangui because it was not safe for them to stay where they were.
As the situation begins to stabilize, UNICEF is supporting to Government to get 650,000 primary school children back in school with the start of the school year to take place on 20 November which is also the anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. As the country struggles to rebuild, the Children’s Government will have their work cut out for them – but Christian is not deterred. “We need to get the Government to take us seriously. In this context, of course it is hard, we lack supplies and resources, but with just a bit of support we can do a lot. Every day, I can do something to defend child rights.”
We could not agree more, Mr. President.
Linda Tom is the Chief of Communications, UNICEF CAR.