“If we understand what our rights are, we can protect them”
Maria Rafamasoa, 16, vice-président of the children’s club at the Ampisikina middle school is a leader for child rights
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On a hot, humid afternoon in Mahajanga, a city in the Boeny region on the north west coast of Madagascar, a full classroom of children sat attentively at their wooden desks listening to their teacher talk about online security. The children, ranging from 10 to 17 years old, are part of the children’s club which was set up with the support of UNICEF.
Amongst them is 16-year-old Maria Rafamasoa. She has been vice-president and an active member of the club since it started at the Ampisikina middle school three years ago. For Maria, it is very important that children learn about their own rights; “If we understand what our rights are, we can play a role in protecting and promoting them.”
These clubs, which children attend voluntarily after school, can now be found in several locations across the country. They particularly aim to increase awareness of child protection issues and to improve children’s knowledge and use of the integrated child protection services which exist to provide care and support for victims.
Maria first joined the club because she was interested in her own protection and was already conscious of the context in which she lives. Mahajanga, while popular for its beaches and lively atmosphere along the waterfront esplanade, is also known for its high levels of violence and exploitation of children, in part in the context of the tourism industry. As more children go online, more children are also at risk of becoming victims of online exploitation and abuse.
Maria has a smart phone and uses Facebook. Despite being very careful, she told us that strangers have nevertheless tried to add her using fake accounts. Others from her school have also experienced online blackmail.
“We learn about how to protect ourselves against some of the dangers which exist so that we can adapt ourselves and share with others.”
Maria is careful because she has learnt about the risks involved with being online through the children’s club, but she knows that many of her friends are not so prepared.
For her friend, Elia, the club is a safe place to exchange ideas, ask questions and acquire new knowledge. “Until today, I didn’t know about many of the ways our photos can be used and exploited on social media,” she said.
As well as learning about the risks of being online, the teacher, who received training as part of UNICEF’s wider child protection strategy, also talks to the children about some of the benefits. Maria likes to use Facebook to follow her favourite singers and to learn about foreign countries.
With the knowledge they have gained, Maria and the rest of the club have taken on advocacy roles in their community. Maria told us that when the club first started, they used the Monday morning flag ceremony at school to speak to their peers about child rights.
“We now run awareness raising activities about twice a month and have visited two public schools in Mahajanga, as well as the private college,” she added proudly.
Maria, is a strong, proactive young woman who is a role model for her peers. She is constantly motivated to grow the club and increase its impact because she believes “it is important that we learn about how to protect ourselves against some of the dangers which exist so that we can adapt ourselves and share with others.”