*Photo credit: Leaderonomics.com
“Dear adults, please listen to us. Please listen to our voices. Let’s work together.”
Those were simple but powerful words spoken by one of the school students at the Children’s SDG Forum. The words were a plea by children directed to the adult audience at the forum. I was very fortunate to be a part of the audience when those words were spoken that day. Along with other adults from different organizations, I could understand the message very clearly: we must not ignore our children’s voices in our endeavours to shape the future of Malaysia.
The Children’s SDG Forum was one of the sessions at the Malaysia SDG Summit 2019, which was held on the 6th and the 7th of November 2019 at Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. The summit was organized by the United Nations Malaysia and Malaysia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, and co-sponsored by Bank Rakyat and Malaysia Development Bank (BPMB). The objective of this summit is to connect different government bodies and private stakeholders in Malaysia with a similar goal, which is to steer Malaysian development paths in line with the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In my opinion, the most memorable part of the summit was the Children’s SDG Forum, because this forum was a session run fully by children under the supervision of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Malaysia. The forum was a platform for a diverse group of children, including those from marginalized backgrounds, to interact with a larger audience at the summit. There were children from the disabled community as well, and they were also actively involved in running the event. The forum’s theme was “Welcome to our 2030!”, which signaled that this forum was important for the sake of the children’s future. I was very pleased to know that Malaysian children were also a part of the summit and a part of the cooperation to achieve the SDGs in our country.
Many attendees of the forum as well as I believed that the Children’s SDG Forum was necessary because children’s opinion is seldom taken into account when it comes to policy making and decision. They are not allowed to vote, so they have no say on who their representatives should be and what their leaders should do. Things that children say or suggest tend to be ignored by adults because children are mostly seen as inexperienced and ‘green’. Therefore, I had hoped that through the Children’s SDG Forum we could provide them space and confidence to voice out their opinions. This forum should be a signal to children across Malaysia, saying that their voices matter for the future of this nation. I had also hoped that this forum would encourage adults to start listening to what children have to say and to continue supporting children in this collective journey to achieve sustainable development.
Lisa Surihani, a Malaysian actress and UNICEF Malaysia Ambassador, had shown support for getting children’s voices heard and listened to. “We [UNICEF] are not here to be the voices of the children. We do not speak for them. But we are here to amplify their voices, to bring their voices out to you all [adults].” Lisa Surihani had said at the forum. “We have to listen to the children of the present, so that we can provide a better world for the children of the future.”
Besides that, a more critical reason for including children in our conversations is that children are the most vulnerable victims of any developmental challenges. This is so because they do not have full control over their lives to make any significant change. People aged under 18 cannot legally make any decision for themselves. The only hope they have in order to improve their lives is through adults’ assistance. For instance, poor children may never be able to escape poverty if their parents do not provide proper education and future financial planning for them. For these reasons, we should at least listen to what children have to say and understand children’s needs and demands. We must also see problems through children’s perspectives as well and consider children’s voices in policymaking.
Moreover, children are the future generation, making it imperative to involve children in our development discussions if we want to accomplish and maintain the SDGs in the long run. A United Nations Technology Innovation Labs representative, who was in the audience, had agreed on this as well. “In order to help humanity move forward, we all must be involved, especially children. Sometimes, they [children] know better than us [adults],” he had spoken to his fellow adults when being asked to speak on stage. He also added that the children he had talked to in the forum were very creative with technological solutions and he looked forward to working with some of them in the future.
Also present at the forum was the social policy chief of UNICEF Malaysia, Stephen Barrett, with whom I had the privilege to meet and talk. When I asked his views on children’s participation in Malaysia’s development, he said that children are agents of change. “If only adults had half the enthusiasm and energy that children have, we would have seen a lot of positive changes in this world.” Barrett had said during our brief conversation. “Look at [the children], they are making this forum a fun one! They are so full of life.
The main highlight of the Children’s SDG Forum was the breakout session. For this session, there were four different presentation stations in the hall, representing four SDGs related to children: SDG 1 No Poverty, SDG 3 Good Health and Well-being, SDG 4 Quality Education, and SDG 13 Climate Action. In this session, the audience members were divided into four groups, depending on the colour of the stickers that were given to the audience at the beginning of the forum. Each group had 15 minutes to listen to one SDG presentation at one station, and when the time was up, each group had to move to another station. Question-and-answer was included in the 15-minute period. Even though the 15-minute window was not enough for any lengthy interaction between the children and the audience, they managed to fit in such fruitful discussions in that short period of time.
On a less serious but still important note, the children hosts had played an amusing music video by Pikotaro, a Japanese comedian. The video was an altered version of Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen with SDG context and lyrics (you can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5l9RHeATl0). The children had also made the adult audience dance with them to make the event feel less formal and more fun. Besides that, Harith Iskander, the internationally recognized Malaysian stand-up comedian, had also made a very quick visit at the forum to entertain the children before the session commenced.