Silent voices in silent times

In tough times, the most vulnerable must be heard.

Abdoulie Sey
19 June 2020
UNICEF The Gambia/YouTube

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of children in The Gambia and around the world. It has changed the way we socialize and how we work. For children, the “new normal” is even more complicated. Most of them have been temporarily separated from their friends, forced to stay and learn from home, and for some, COVID-19 restrictions mean no education at all.

To provide children with the opportunity to discuss COVID-19 and its impact, and speak directly to the authorities and stakeholders, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, the Children’s National Assembly of The Gambia, and the National Youth Council launched the first COVID-19 Virtual Townhall for Children.

“When we conceived the idea of hosting the first virtual townhall for children, we wanted to provide them a platform to share their stories about COVID-19,” Sandra Lattouf, UNICEF The Gambia Representative said. “We wanted to hear how they are coping with COVID-19, how they are learning during the pandemic, their worries, and how they can contribute to the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. What we eventually had was a program that surpassed our expectations, by far. Children shared their views and made demands, and we listened”.

We strongly believe that every child should be heard.

Sandra Lattouf, UNICEF The Gambia Representative

The event was hosted by the Speaker of the Children’s National Assembly, Sarata Ceesay, and had the Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare, Fatou Kinteh, UNICEF The Gambia Representative, Sandra Lattouf, and Ebrima Colley, the deputy speaker of the Children’s National Assembly as panelists. It was streamed live on Gambian online TV, Kerr Fatou, and simulcast on the national broadcaster of The Gambia, GRTS Radio, and Afri Radio.

“We strongly believe that every child should be heard,” Sandra said. “That’s why we collaborated with The Gambia government and partners to establish, in 2019, the Children’s National Assembly, the foremost children-led advocacy institution in The Gambia. This COVID-19 virtual townhall is part of UNICEF’s drive to make sure children’s voices are heard.”

Pertinent among the issues discussed during the townhall were learning during the pandemic, child labour, and COVID-19 response efforts targeting children. Students who had no internet access listened via radio and shared their comments and questions via SMS. A sign language interpreter was also at hand to support the hard of hearing to participate in the discussions.

“We are also concerned by the large number of children in the streets, and some are selling, some are begging,” Fatou Kinteh, the Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare said in response to a question about government’s reaction to “recent increase” in child labour. “That is not the right thing to do. I know these are difficult times… but I want to encourage parents to manage with (government’s relief aid) and not send their children into the streets.”

The townhall was an opportunity for students to provide feedback on the remote lessons delivered via TV and radio broadcasts and make recommendations on how they can be improved.

“We appreciate the steps taken by the government and partners to ensure continuity of learning, but many children face challenges accessing the lessons,” Sarata Ceesay, the Speaker of the Children’s National Assembly said. “But the townhall was a great platform to discuss these issues, and I am pleased by the feedback we received from children across the country.”