Jennifer Mwenyi, a leader in her community in her native Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaks at the 2013 European Development Days in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by: World Vision

“What makes me believe things will change for children is the rapid change the Children’s Parliament has already brought to the mentalities, beliefs and customs within [my] community. The members of the community now know that the rights of children — moreover of girls — are applicable.”

These are the words of 16-year-old Jennifer Mwenyi, a leader in her community in her native Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is not only a leader of the future, but a leader of today.

Girls like Jennifer are powerful agents of social change. However, children — particularly female children — remain among the most marginalized, vulnerable and excluded in our world. Despite remarkable achievements on so many fronts, there is still a long way to go to reducing the marginalization and exclusion of millions of girls due to poverty, gender, disability, religion or ethnicity. Girls must be empowered, consulted and participate in decisions that affect their lives.

All rights must be respected

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly affirms that children — up to the age of 18 — have the right to express their opinions, to be listened to, and to participate in decisions that affect their lives. The convention does not make any gender distinction in its provisions, but proclaims that all rights must be respected without discrimination of any kind, including that based on gender.

Nevertheless, many girls face significant obstacles to participating in social life. Their participation is pivotal to ensure inclusiveness and ownership of the development process, to build democratic societies, to reduce dependency, and to finally achieve the unfinished business of the World Fit for Children as committed by world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in 2002.

Creating adequate spaces for girls

The post-2015 world will affect today’s children more than anyone else. Children and young people together represent over 50 percent of today’s global population. Yet, there are a number of gaps regarding their key issues in current discussions and the Focused Areas document at the U.N. Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, as well as surrounding conversations on the post-2015 framework.

Just as gender equality remains high on the agenda, so must child participation and empowerment. Children and gender equality are directly linked, as the empowerment of girls in decision-making processes at all levels, will impact the ability to reach gender equality in the future.

At present, child empowerment and participation in decision-making remains a mere concept for many girls around the world. They are faced with deeply held assumptions that discourage their participation in policy debate and assume they are just the beneficiaries of development. Girls, in particular, rarely have adequate spaces where they can contribute because existing spaces are very male and adult oriented.

Towards a better future

I never cease to be impressed by how children are able to clearly point to core issues. Evidence to this is the many World Vision consultations where children are asked about the situation in their communities, and how to improve it — and their response is very concrete.

They have the passion and drive to exert influence with their peers, community or country. However, they’ve also made clear that they need to be provided with the space, knowledge and tools to make this happen. In addition, we need to take into account gender factors.

Girls in many countries experience systematic segregation based on traditional attitudes that discourage the equal participation of girls and boys.

But despite the stereotypes and gender bias, some girls are already leading their communities towards a better future.

A voice for the voiceless

One example is Jennifer, president of the Children’s Parliament in Kinkole, outside of Kinshasa.

As a World Vision ambassador she spoke on a high-level panel at the recent European Development Days, Europe’s premier forum on international relief and development. Jennifer fights corruption in her local community and advocates for those who are voiceless through her leadership role in the parliament — such as victims of sexual violence who have been made outcasts in their community.

“Access to justice is difficult for many children who are victims of abuse in my country. In 2013, our Children’s Parliament denounced 51 cases of abuse and violence towards children … [and it] wants respect for the rights of children and to improve the conditions of all who are abandoned and neglected. We have decided to fight for the improvement of the conditions of the lives of children,” she says.

Jennifer describes her participation at EDD as “an opportunity that gives me the chance to express, as a Congolese child, my thoughts … on what must change, the errors that cannot be repeated in the future. It is time that the bad gives way to the good for the economic and social development in the DRC.”

Supporting global objectives

Jennifer is not the only young woman who has been empowered and allowed to engage in the decisions that impact her life, both locally and globally.

Restanti, 16-years-old from Indonesia, was also a youth ambassador at EDD, and raised her voice for her own community. She is a member of FORANI, Nias’ children’s forum, which created and maintains a successful garden in their island community to help improve food security and nutrition.

“The nutrition garden is just a small example of what can be done by kids and youth to support global development objectives. We believe that if youth like us can do something, adults also have the power to do even more positive things in order to support development globally,” says Restanti.

On her ability to participate as a youth ambassador, Restanti said that “it felt like a dream … to share children’s opinions that will support the global development agenda.”

But Restanti’s dream was made into reality — as it should be for millions of girls, around the world. They should be listened to and they should be empowered.

Symbols of hope

World Vision is thankful for local and international leaders, who already promote, encourage and empower girls to participate and be consulted. But more must be done by the global community and girls need to be engaged and taken seriously in global decision making.

Jennifer and Restanti are symbols of hope. They are already leaders and they are the future. In the post-2015 framework, will we mainstream girls’ participation? Will we create mechanisms for girls —particularly children — to participate and listen to their reality and wisdom?

One thing is certain: We will not address the needs of the most vulnerable until we listen to — and understand — the realities of their daily experience.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Charles Badenoch

    Charles Badenoch is World Vision International's vice-president for global advocacy. Previously, Badenoch was chief executive at World Vision U.K., joining the organization in Oct. 2003 following an extensive commercial career. He is passionate about increasing World Vision’s emphasis on advocacy and justice for children and is focused on ensuring that the voices of children are heard and acted upon in the post-2015 process.