Jesus was quick to say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14). His words were countercultural in a time and place when children’s voices were rarely heard; His words continue to provoke our thoughts and actions as we engage with children, especially those most marginalized.
The Faith to Action Initiative recognizes the need to create platforms for children’s voices to be heard as one of its core guiding principles: “It is important to listen to the voices of children and families, respond to their concerns, and involve them in meaningful decisions that affect their lives, such as placement and family-related matters.” When this concept is fleshed out, it invites children to actively work toward their own well-being—as well as that of their families—in ways that are appropriate for their age and maturity (see Strategy 11 in The Faith to Action Initiative’s Journey of Faith publication). It is easy to affirm the need for child participation on a theoretical level. However, in so very many contexts around the world, choosing to thoughtfully and deliberately involve vulnerable children is too often not even considered.
Challenging Heights, an organization committed to eradicating child slavery in Ghana, recognizes the value of children’s voices in understanding child rights and preventing human trafficking. The organization rescues children from slave labor in the fishing industry on Lake Volta, and provides them with pathways toward rehabilitation and reintegration with their families. While rescue and recovery are critical to ending this system of slavery, Challenging Heights quickly acknowledges that the system cannot end unless the root causes that put children in vulnerable situations to begin with are addressed. Their holistic approach thus includes education about child rights, vocational training and microfinancing support for youth and families, and advocacy of national and international policies that protect children.
The importance of child participation is central to Challenging Heights’ strategic plan:
At the heart of our mission “to promote youth and family empowerment and children’s rights to education and freedom from forced labor in Ghana” is a desire to prevent child trafficking and restore those trapped in slavery to a normal life. Prevention comes in many forms, including our community-level sensitization and awareness programs and supporting Community Child Protection Committees. We also engage children in learning their rights in our continued participation in voting for the annual World’s Children’s Prize. Through our programs we[’ve] educated thousands of boys, girls, men, women and community leaders about child trafficking and the rights of children.
Children and families are invited to voice their opinions, preferences, and concerns throughout the entire process of rehabilitation and reintegration. First, families are invited to visit their children in the rehab shelter to facilitate communication between one another. Children are then actively involved in determining whether or not their biological family offers a safe environment in which to live (as, in some cases, parents were involved in trafficking). The consent of both children and parents is necessary for reintegration to occur, and children’s voices continue to be heard by Challenging Heights staff who meet with children regularly for two full years after reintegration.
In addition, children and families are offered unique opportunities to articulate their desire for justice within their communities. Children offer feedback to Challenging Heights staff and community leaders about their perceived level of risk, as well as about friends and classmates who are at risk of being trafficked. Input from children plays a key role in helping staff determine the identities of those still trapped in slavery on Lake Volta. Furthermore, children at the Challenging Heights School (for rescued and at-risk children in one of the communities most affected by trafficking) are regularly given opportunities to advocate for child rights, share their personal experiences, and articulate their dreams for the future among their peers.
Finally, children are given platforms to express their needs and requests to those influencing policy decisions. In partnership with the High Commission of Canada, Challenging Heights recently hosted a conference for 500 children around the theme “Child Rights Is YOUR Responsibility.” This event specifically targeted children from 19 schools in the Senya Beraku area in order to learn what child rights are, how those rights should be protected, and what ought to be expected of community members and leaders. During small-group break-out sessions, children worked together to articulate what specific things they expected of their teachers, community members, and leaders, then read these aloud to the dignities in attendance. An example of their address to the police read as follows:
Many of our friends are trapped in the culture of trafficking, and it’s very painful to see some of them in videos and know what they are going through. We need a district social welfare office in Senya. We don’t have any social offices in Senya. Those cases [currently] need to be reported in Awutu Bereku, and we, the children, cannot get all the way there to report cases.
Children were given a voice, and their leaders listened.
All children have remarkable stories to tell. However, particularly for orphaned and vulnerable children, their voices will not be heard unless they are provided with specific platforms throughout their process of being reintegrated into families and communities. When children learn that they have a voice, they also realize they have a choice: a choice to advocate for their rights, a choice to educate their peers, and a choice to pursue opportunities that allow their families to thrive.