For the Summit for Democracy Year of Action, Save the Children (SC) hosted nine national roundtables, providing platforms for young people and local civil society to speak directly to their governments about their leading issues for democratic reform and renewal. One of the nine participating countries was Zambia, where adolescents from across the country called on their government to improve children’s participation in public decision making in order to strengthen democracy.
Support from key stakeholders, including civil society leaders, government officials, bilateral donor governments and – most importantly – buy-in from the young people taking part.
A strong democracy and open civic space in Zambia, and attention to democratic renewal related to the Summit for Democracy Year of Action.
Various strategies to engage young people in different ways and give them multiple opportunities to participate, plus child safeguarding to ensure no harm.
Financial resources and dedicated staff to facilitate participation from young people from a wide range of backgrounds.
While the promotion of human rights was at the top of the agenda at the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021, there was limited conversation specifically around children and young people’s rights, and little opportunity to hear from them directly. Though young people under the age of18 cannot vote in most contexts, they can be civic actors for strong democracies – children and youth have a right to influence those government decisions that will affect them, and they can be powerful defenders of human rights.
To bring a greater focus on children and young people during the Summit for Democracy Year of Action, Save the Children US (SCUS) provided a small grant to each participating SC country office – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, the United States and Zambia – interested in facilitating the participation of diverse young people and local civil society to call for government action on issues of importance to them.
SCUS offered technical assistance by way of background on the US-hosted Summit for Democracy, as well as facilitating contacts with the US Embassy / US Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission in each country. Save the Children’s in-county offices focused the roundtables on issues from their advocacy agendas relating to democratic strengthening and the fulfilment of children and young people’s rights in their country. These topics included transparency and access to [especially child-friendly] information, accountability for previously signed international commitments (e.g. the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Safe Schools declaration), public participation in decision-making, fair financing for public services for children and young people, climate justice, girls’ political leadership and more.
Case Description – Spotlight on Zambia Children’s Dialogue on Democracy
In Zambia, SC convened a two-day event for adolescents to discuss how they hope to see improved participation for children for a strengthened democracy. At the ‘Children’s Summit for Democracy’ in Lusaka, young people – both girls and boys – aged 12-17 travelled from various provinces to meet with local civil society organisations and government leaders.
“[The government] needs to bridge the gap between children and government. It is hard for a child like me to go to a minister and talk about democracy. So we want a structure for children to be able to access information.” – Adolescent girl participant
Following a day of preparation and interactive conversation with democracy and rights activists from civil society, the young people decided on their key ‘asks’ for the Zambian President:
- To improve children’s participation in public decision making.
- To increase access to information designed for children.
- To create permanent platforms for children’s engagement with the government.
- To ensure children’s participation in developing school curricula, including action-oriented civic education.
On the second day, the young people presented these questions and engaged in a dialogue with participating adults from the Zambian government, the US Embassy and other donors as well as civil society. The chair of the Zambian Parliamentary Caucus for Children committed to taking their questions to the President. In addition, in the time leading up to the 2023 Summit for Democracy, the Zambia office of SC continued to advocate on the issues selected through the dialogues and sending a letter detailing the requests to relevant ministries.
“Children are future leaders, so we need to learn about democracy. But we aren’t just the future, we are also the present. And we need more information, in child-friendly language.” – Adolescent girl participant
Policies, institutions and civic environment: As a result of the peaceful transition of power and democratic openings following the election of the former opposition leader, now President, Hakainde Hichilema in 2021, Zambia has now been deemed a democratic ‘bright spot’ by USAID Administrator Samantha Power. During the 2021 Summit for Democracy, the Zambian President highlighted the importance of building a strong and inclusive democracy by working alongside civil society and embracing decentralisation.
This openness and attention to democracy in Zambia meant that the Summit for Democracy was a useful hook to highlight ongoing efforts. These included the recently enacted Children’s Code Act No. 12 of 2022 and the development of the National Child Participation Framework. However, the Summit also exposed the need to support ministries in understanding how their various departments and jurisdictions can make connections between children’s participation policies and democracy.
Civil society and international actors were strongly supportive of the Children’s Summit for Democracy roundtable. Zambian human rights activists, along with USAID and other donors, took part in the sessions and were eager to offer support to the adolescents. Their participation also lent additional legitimacy to the event in the domestic context, creating a general display of support that was useful for influencing government officials.
Outreach & youth engagement practices:
- Both days’ sessions were co-moderated by a 16-year-old girl, underscoring the aspect of adolescent-led advocacy and encouraging young people’s participation in the conference.
- Day one of the session offered time in small groups and larger conversation for young people of different comfort levels to engage. On day two, adolescents presented their recommendations to the multistakeholder panel of adults, and the adolescents who had not been key presenters were allowed time to add comments to the presentations and ask questions during open discussion time, in order to allow everyone to participate.
- To determine the key recommendations for the government, the adolescents brainstormed a list of potential topics, then voted on those of leading importance. This allowed all of them to have a say in the decision-making process and to see the impact of voting.
- The session was covered by Zambian media, placing greater public pressure on the government to be held to account in the lead-up to the 2023 Summit for Democracy.
Resources: Access to resources was certainly a barrier to entry. This roundtable was deliberately diversified to include young people from across urban and rural areas, socioeconomic classes, disability and gender. However, the number of adolescents that could be supported to attend was still limited. Significant financial resources were required for the child participants and their chaperones to travel from across the country and stay in Lusaka for multiple days. SCUS provided some funding for this initiative for the strategic impact of adolescents’ voices in the Summit for Democracy processes. Yet even with this, in Zambia and nearly all other participating countries, SC offices needed to mobilise additional resources to make the events a reality.