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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Rutendo Mugwara is a 17-year-old on a mission.
The Zimbabwean teenager is a youth ambassador Justice Desk Africa, a human rights organization funded by several Catholic NGO’s.
“I care deeply about the plights of other youths and children across Africa because they in essence are also my problems and a problem shared is a problem halved,” she told Crux.
She says children’s progress is limited by a broad range of issues including “poor governance and socio-economic factors, “but I believe that an issue not discussed enough is the regressive mind sets a large majority of Africans hold.”
Following are excerpts of that conversation….
Crux: As a young person who would usually be concentrating on building your future, why do you care about the plight of other youths and children across Africa?
Mugwara: As I build my future, I see that the issues that I encounter are not unique to me. I have found that in many ways the problems we face, are shared. So in building my future, I recognize that I can help build the futures of many other people across Africa and consequentially, the future of Africa. I care deeply about the plights of other youths and children across Africa because they in essence are also my problems and a problem shared is a problem halved.
Have you personally experienced abuses of your basic rights? Would you want to talk about it, if so?
I was completely shocked when I heard people in different countries [outside Zimbabwe] criticize the president and the government, I had no clue that such was allowed. I thought silently to myself that they should stop, or they could get arrested. Even more shocking was that protests could be held without the police violently intervening. This was the first time I heard that, firstly, these were democratic rights, and secondly, that I was experiencing an abuse of my basic rights. That day, a small part of my world changed, and now, I aim to change a small part of the world.
What are those issues standing in the way of children’s rights in Africa?
We can talk of poor governance and socio-economic factors, but I believe that an issue not discussed enough is the regressive mindsets a large majority of Africans hold. The mentalities and beliefs that many Africans were taught need to go.
As Africans we are often taught not to question authority, to obey and ask no further questions and to tolerate disgraceful behaviors from others simply because they are older and/or in a position of power. Children are viewed as unconscious beings who are unaware of their circumstances and need to know their place in order to be molded into obedient and docile individuals; not as thinking, cognizant beings who can have an age appropriate level of autonomy.
These mind sets have been tattooed in the minds of many Africans since birth and make the idea of children’s rights seem foreign, ridiculous, and strange, not only to the adults in the society, but even the children themselves. Thus, we are left in a situation where the adults abuse the rights of the children, and the children believe that this behavior is just and normal. They will continue to do the same when they are older and repeat the cycle.
What levels of success have you recorded in the countries where you work?
Justice Desk Africa has done incredible work with its Youth Ambassadors and has had tremendous success. To put it simply, they get the work done.
Some examples are having stopped two instances of human trafficking; successfully advocating to build infrastructure; and implementing higher levels of policing in their communities. Others have campaigned against tampon tax which encouraged legislative change; have helped end child marriages in their respective countries; gotten women and girls back into schools; and championed against the end of corporal punishment at home and at some schools. These are the examples of the biggest and more visible changes that they have done, but even the smallest changes are to be recognized, such as campaigning for unity and an end to racism, bringing awareness to mental health, encouraging culture-consciousness, and empowering young boys and girls in the fight against gender-based violence.
The list is a long and impressive one, which brings a lot of hope to this world.
I know you still operate in mostly Southern Africa countries, but the issue of children’s rights violations is huge across Africa. For instance, in Cameroon, war has driven over 700,000 children out of school. What message would you have for such children?
You are powerful. Yes, you are affected by the numerous violations of your human rights that disempower you in a number of ways which may lead to frustration, hopelessness and ultimately succumbing to your negative circumstances; however, I want you to never lose sight of the power you carry.
Many are fooled into believing that authoritative power is the only power you can possess, but simply as you are and as who you are, you are, you have more power than you realize. You have power in maintaining your values, morals and/or faiths in the face of situations that may test it. You have power when interacting with those both older and younger than you, through engaging in conversations which change the mind sets of those older than you and comforting those younger than you filled with fear and confusion. You have power in being a friend to the lonely. You have power in your knowledge and information available to you, and most importantly, you have power in your voice.
By recognizing this, you can empower yourself and the people around you. Your impact does not have to be global, national, or even communal, but if a few individuals feel that their lives have been better off since you touched them, that is an incredible feat.
This is a power that no one but yourself can take away from you, it is intrinsically within each one of us. Only when you succumb to hopelessness and believe you are powerless is when you truly lose your power. Never forget that you are powerful.