Cian McLeod, 17, Ireland

Striving for equity: A look at marginalized adolescents in Zambia

Although I believe we are closer than ever to living in an equitable world, societies must still work towards changing social norms that allow discrimination, marginalization and exclusion. This is most apparent when we consider disabled children, girls’ education and children living with HIV.

In November 2009, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a couple of weeks in a home for disabled children in Mongu, Zambia, and I gained a vivid insight into their lives. I was shocked by the marginalization of these children, as they are among the most cheerful and playful I have ever met. As in many other countries, disabled children in Zambia are sometimes sent away and even disowned. They may be left unattended and uncared for; they may also receive less food.

Disabled children are often excluded from school because the education system makes no allowance for them. In addition, their parents do not recognize their right to education or development. They are denied the chance to learn the skills they need to work and achieve independence as adults.

Gender inequality is evident as well. Girls who are disabled run a greater risk of physical and mental abuse. Girls are not valued, and neither is their education. I see the rise in HIV and AIDS as a direct result of this social outlook.

Education plays a vital role in the prevention of sexual transmitted infections. In order to halt the spread of HIV, it is fundamental that all adolescents learn about prevention and treatment. Although school enrolment of girls has increased in developing countries, it is still not equal to that of boys. In Zambia, when a family member is HIV-positive, the family’s financial resources shift from education to health. As girls are responsible for the traditionally female tasks – cooking, cleaning and nursing – they are expected to drop out of school to care for the sick.

Globally, nearly 5 million young people were living with HIV in 2008. In Zambia, if a girl or boy is thought to be infected with HIV, she or he is no longer sent to school. This lack of education leads to a vicious cycle of gender inequality, increased HIV infection and poverty. When girls and women are not given access to education, they cannot gain independence from men; when girls do not learn about HIV prevention, they are more likely to be exposed to the virus.

It is evident that we do not yet live in a fair and non-discriminatory world: The rights of marginalized children need to be better protected. It is the responsibility of adolescents to focus our endeavours towards creating a more equitable society in our lifetime.

Cian McLeod lives in Balbriggan, Ireland. He is involved in his community’s sports development programme and peer mentoring. His experience volunteering in Mongu was with the Sporting Fingal Zambian Mission. Cian’s goal is to work as an economist for developing countries. He would like to make the world a fairer place.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.