'A child should not have to beg'

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Delegates to the C8 summit - the children's G8 - urge world leaders to act. Yojana Sharma reports.

"G8 leaders should listen to us because we know the reality. I know how poverty is ruining the life of children in my country," says Aminata Palmer, 11, from Sierra Leone.

"We know what is going on in these parts of the world," says Dechen Pema, 17, from the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, who sees herself as a spokeswoman for the children of all South Asia, including India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. "What they (the G8) do affects us directly."

Aminata and Dechen are in Scotland to put the issues of trade, aid, debt and climate change into perspective and push for what really matters to them. They are part of a delegation of children from the poorest countries and the G8 nations at C8, a children's summit organised by Unicef, the United Nations children's fund, the first to be held on the fringe of the G8.

The C8 delegates are hoping to influence the G8 leaders and put the talks into perspective - they fear words like aid and poverty and third world debt are bandied about without much understanding of what they mean.

"There are many thousands of street children of my age and some even younger, aged two, three or four years old. It is too awful to think about," Aminata says. "A child should not have to beg for a living. World leaders should try in any way possible to meet their needs."

"Time and again the C8 delegates return to the issue of education, health and ending child exploitation. The way out of poverty is through education."

Although this is Aminata's first visit overseas she is neither intimidated nor overawed. She has been involved in the Voice of Children radio programme in Sierra Leone where radio is the main source of information for many children and as a result her understanding of the issues is deep.

On air she discusses issues such as girls' education, child labour and trafficking. Aminata wants the G8 leaders to consider the same issues.

Dechen is also looking for the G8 to provide a lead on education.

"Education has a big role to play and also we need help with trade so that we do not always have to depend on rich countries to build our schools."

Girls have not traditionally been encouraged to go to school in Bhutan so it takes huge determination to complete primary and secondary education and win a scholarship to study medicine in Sri Lanka, as Dechen has done.

"Education is the only way we can grow up into independent beings who don't need aid," she says. Even global warming can be halted, she believes, through education. "Every farmer, every child should be educated so that they grow up to understand the consequences of cutting down one tree," she says.

Wilfried Ebene Minla'a, 17, another C8 delegate, lived in Cameroon until he was 14 but now lives in France. Last year he went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist in a Unicef project for child soldiers who have been demobilised. "Child soldiers should not exist. What kind of world are we in?" he says, clearly moved by the plight of the children.

"Adults do not want to talk about these things but we young people talk about it. Former child soldiers must be educated and prepared for the world of work. The G8 can assist with that.

"These children of my own age, of my own generation had seen death close up and have even killed people. Yet they were very detached as if speaking about others, and not themselves. They had lost normal human feelings; they had lost their childhoods. It was very sad."

War has also ravaged Sierra Leone. "The schools that were burnt must be rebuilt. The hospitals must be rebuilt. The houses must be rebuilt. It is all about funding," Aminata says. Even now 70 per cent of girls in Sierra Leone are out of school - although education is free.

Her mother had a limited education. "If our government makes school compulsory and the G8 funds it, that will be one solution to poverty," she believes.

Although barely out of primary school herself, Aminata has been known to gatecrash the offices of high political officials demanding an audience.

"They cannot throw us out when we appeal to them," she laughs. The tight security cordon around Tony Blair and the other G8 leaders will make such tactics impossible, but she says with confidence:

"Mr Blair and the other leaders will be moved by our words. Children are crying out, their cries need to be answered now."

Her answer to why there has not been any action in the past is disarming.

"There has not been a C8 summit in the past. This is the first time. Once they (G8 leaders) have been told, they have no excuse for inaction."

Dechen adds: "If they do not act, the G8 leaders will find one day that part of the world is collapsing and everyone is suffering because they did not act."

Trouble, she says, can easily spill over to "their part of the world".

Children who are not educated and whose rights are abused will grow into dispossessed adults, Dechen believes. "If children are not educated, if they are not taken care of when they are young, when they grow up they could start wars, catastrophes that will shake the world."

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