Difference: The UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador Program

Rahila Haidary, one of UNICEF Australia’s Young Ambassadors, knows the importance of children’s rights better than most people her age. Growing up in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, which was then under Taliban rule, Rahila was denied the basic right of going to school. Boys, not girls, were the only children allowed to receive an education in her province.

“I was the eldest girl child in the family and always questioned why my boy cousins got to go to learn at the mosque but I was never allowed to. No one really gave me a reasonable answer but just said that, ‘You are a girl!’”

Rahila could only dream of what going to school every day would be like. It was her dream to have a notebook and pen and to go to a class that had a blackboard. She told us that she had heard about such things but had never seen them, except in her dreams. Not willing to be unfairly denied her education, Rahila tried to find a way to go to school, just like the boys in her town did. Bravely, she dressed up like a boy in an attempt to go unnoticed.

“I thought I can look like a boy by just wearing a boy cloth [and] not a dress. One morning I wore my cousin's cloth and went to the mosque amongst the boys to start learning.”

But Rahila was not able to disguise herself and people at the school recognised her. She faced severe consequences from the Taliban rulers in her province, who decided that she was no longer welcome in the area.

“I had to pay for what I had done. The next day a group of men from our village got together to hear about what the punishment for my sin was. They decided that I shouldn't be seen in the area again.”

Rahila’s family were forced to make the difficult decision of sending her to live with her grandparents in Pakistan to escape further punishment. Rahila lived there for 5 years and was joined by her family in 2008 after they too were forced out of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Two years later, Rahila’s family were granted humanitarian visas by the Australian Government.

Since arriving in Australia, Rahila has kept herself busy and is working to make a positive change both within Australia and beyond. Acting as a UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador since July 2014, she also works as an interpreter (in four dialects) and was recently accepted to study International Relations and Political Science at the University of Western Australia.

UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador Program

Rahila has always felt a connection with UNICEF and the important work that it does, having discovered at a young age the opportunities that it provides for children. While living with her grandparents in Pakistan, Rahila was finally able to achieve her dream of receiving an education by attending a school run by UNICEF.

“I was extremely lucky to get accepted. The classes consisted of 25 students and the most exciting thing was that we got to sit on chairs.”

“There was one really attractive thing about the notebooks – that it had the UNICEF logo on the front cover. As I was growing, I learnt that UNICEF is an international organisation that works all around the word to create change for children. I never thought I will ever have an opportunity to become part of UNICEF until I came to Australia.”

The UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador Program provides ten young Australians with a platform to speak up for and take action on children’s rights. It is a one year, voluntary role that requires Young Ambassadors to travel around Australia to engage with the public, lobby the government and consult with UNICEF Australia in relation to the rights of children around the world and issues that affect children and young people in Australia. Young Ambassadors are directly involved in UNICEF Australia’s decision-making and are its point-of-contact on all youth related issues. Young Ambassadors are aged between 15-24, from every state and territory in Australia and from a diverse range of backgrounds.

For Rahila, becoming a UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador was an opportunity to use her personal experiences to advocate for children forced into situations similar to her own.

“I believe all the motivation and aiming for the UNICEF Young Ambassador role came to me from my own life experience as a child. I wanted to give back by advocating for the rights of the vulnerable.”

In particular, having been denied the right to attend school solely on the basis of her gender, Rahila wanted to enhance awareness about the importance of every child having access to education.

“I never knew as a child I had the right to education so I committed to let children know about what they have as a child and they deserve to live a childhood of joy and happiness.”

A highlight for Rahila of her role as a Young Ambassador has been the opportunity to consult with Australian youth and to hear from “so many amazing kids about their thoughts, their experiences and their concerns”. Describing the children and young people that she has met as “the youngest talented creatures on earth”, Rahila aims to understand “what is important to children, what they worry about and what they think can be done by government differently.”

Another highlight for Rahila has been the opportunity to interact and meet with politicians about things such as the recent Things That Matter Report.

“Another fabulous day as an ambassador would be talking to a politician about the amazing things children have told you. Getting their views and taking it to the right people is very necessary because it's their world and everyone should listen to what matters to children.”

Things That Matter Report

Rahila’s involvement in preparing the Things that Matter Report has taken up a major part of her time as a Young Ambassador. Prepared to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Convention), the Things That Matter Report was compiled and written by Rahila and the other UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors following a national consultation that ran from September to November 2014. The Report was submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Australia's National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, in November 2014.

The Things That Matter Report provides a snapshot of the issues that are most concerning to Australian youth and their suggestions for how Australia could be improved so that every child has their rights fulfilled. In preparing the Report, the Young Ambassadors spoke to and received submissions from over 1500 children from a range of backgrounds about their ideas, concerns and hopes. For Rahila, the process was an incredible learning experience as much as an information-gathering exercise.

“So far my greatest achievement as a young ambassador has been meeting with over 300 children face to face, hearing from them about the things that matter to them. No doubt that this journey has taught me things that I never imagined. Listening to every child about what they care for is the most pleasurable thing that I have done. Every second of the consultation was something that taught me so much. I learnt so much from the children I think I wouldn’t have learnt talking to adults, children have different and unique experiences (to adults) and when they talk about it they speak in language spoken by children.”

What particularly struck Rahila throughout the process was the diversity of experience of Australian youth, observing, “Every child has a different story.” She noted that access to education, an issue close to her heart, was a major concern for rural children and young people. In particular, “children would talk about not feeling OK about there being no university to go after school – they want the opportunity to graduate from school and further study”. In contrast, urban and city children “spoke about not feeling safe when they walked outside of their houses. Too many children are addicted to alcohol, cigarette[s] and smoking at such a young age.”

Following the consultation process, the Things That Matter Report made a number of findings including that:

  • children worry about other children who live in poverty and who are homeless and in need of care;
  • children’s own worries concern the absence of family and friends, especially when they think that they may be in danger;
  • the most important thing to children is family, and keeping their family together;
  • children want to feel safe in their community, and what makes them feel safe and secure may be different to what the wider community needs to feel safe. Children reported that they are very affected by media reporting on local and global issues and it contributes to how secure they feel; and
  • children need to be, and to feel that they are, included in decisions, mostly at home. We need to do more to include their voice in big decisions that affect them.

What stood out to Rahila from her own consultations was the suffering of children from mental illness, the prevalence of bullying and cyberbullying, and that children were not given enough knowledge about how to deal with family violence. The major recommendation of the Things That Matter Report is that the Australian Government develops a National Plan for Children. The purpose of the Plan would be to fully reflect the articles of the Convention in the policies of the Government, providing a means by which we can measure how things are improving for children in Australia.

What Next?

Now that the Things That Matter Report has been submitted, Rahila’s focus as a Young Ambassador is on two things – first, working towards creating and implementing a National Plan for Children, which will involve engaging with politicians in discussions about the issues facing children and the direction for the future; and second, the rights of children who are in detention centres, which Rahila believes is one of the “biggest human rights issues in Australia”.

Rahila views children living in detention centres as “children who don't get to go to school, children who don't even get to play, children who are punished for their parents’ choices, children that are suffering from mental health issues and children that are not even listened to…. Rahila, along with the other Young Ambassadors, plans to use her position to help these children in some way. As she told us, “We want to fight for their rights and advocate for them so children are no longer kept there and are treated as human beings.” To achieve this Rahila and the other Young Ambassadors have been planning workshops through high schools, in order to raise awareness. Rahila hopes that doing so will encourage the Government to take action by the end of 2015.

As Rahila explained to us, her experiences over the first six months of being a Young Ambassador have broadened her goals and ambitions for the role.

“After being in the role for six months my intentions have slightly changed. I want to work towards a world where every child enjoys their childhood in school, with friends, away from mental health issues, racism and bullying. Every child deserves these and it's their right.”

A Positive Change

Rahila’s personal story and achievements so far as a UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador should act as an inspiration for all Australian children and young people. Rahila’s advice for those who are unsure whether to apply to be a Young Ambassador in 2015 is, “it is really important to think about their childhood first and what they have been through. I’m sure every person in their childhood has had some ups and downs that they would want to share and talk about. She believes that initiatives such as the Young Ambassador program are very important to Australian youths as a way to improve dialogue and increase awareness on a number of contentious issues. She calls on all young people to apply, “go for it and you will enjoy every second of it. It is not something that you can experience in your everyday life, it is a really unique experience, you will never forget it in your life. I have enjoyed every second of it.”

Positive change can be effected beyond the Young Ambassador program though, and Rahila believes that “every youth in Australia can have a role in increasing awareness of children’s rights issues by simply contributing some time to listen to children.” Rahila plans to continue her advocacy work long after her position as a UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador ends as she feels that there is still much more to be done.

“There is a lot missing in terms of us giving the children their rights in Australia. There is yet a lot to be done, but I am sure if every person stands for humanity we will be able to create the change and I will fight to the best of my ability for this change to become reality one day.”

Tim Craven and Annabel Deans are Law Clerks at King & Wood Mallesons.

The article was written for the special Children's Rights Edition of the HRLC Monthly Bulletin, Rights Agenda, developed in collaboration with the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, King & Wood Mallesons, the Human Rights Law Centre and UNICEF Australia.