Freetown – Calling children and youth “the greatest asset of Africa today,” the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Under-Secretary-General Olara A. Otunnu, yesterday urged Sierra Leoneans to listen to the views of children affected by the 10-year conflict, which he said were important for the future development of the country and for the post-war healing process. Speaking at the Headquarters of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), Mr. Otunnu officially launched the Voice of Children, a series of radio programmes run by and for children.

Addressing the launching ceremony, which was chaired by Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, Mr. Otunnu said it was important for children to inform others about their rights, and that the Voice of Children, which he described as the first project of its kind, would serve that purpose.

I have been struck by the thirst for knowledge, the thirst for information, the desire to tell their stories, the desire for entertainment shown by the children, he told government and UN officials, child protection agencies and dozens of children participating in the project, which is hosted and aired by Radio UNAMSIL.

The Voice of Children consists of several radio programmes designed, produced and broadcast by children between the ages of five and 18 to assist in their post-war rehabilitation and provide education and entertainment. Mr. Otunnu noted the tremendous progress made by the Voice of Children since the project got off the ground in January.

I am delighted that the Voice of Children is there to tap into the talents of Sierra Leonean children, he said, stressing the need to have a dialogue with children. The Special Representative paid tribute to UNAMSIL, the Sierra Leone government and leaders of various child advocacy groups for their work in championing the rights of children, urging them “to make sure that the Voice of Children is nurtured and sustained.”

During the ceremony, children performed an interactive skirt entitled, “This Is Why We Need a Voice.” A showing of a film which portrayed Sierra Leonean children talking about their experiences during the war and their aspirations for the future, as well as their participation in the project, preceded a media encounter during which the children posed questions on child protection issues to Mr. Otunnu and Ms. Shirley Gbujama, the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, who was also present.

Prior to the launching of ceremony, the Special Representative met with the Executive Secretary of the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR), Dr. Francis Kai Kai, who told him that the issue of children “has been at the heart” of the country’s disarmament process. Dr. Kai Kai talked about the NCDDR’s role in demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers, noting that on the whole, the process was successful, with more than 6,800 children demobilized. Mr. Otunnu commended the NCDDR for its efforts in reintegrating children and urged it to share the lessons it had learned thus far, which would be useful to countries grappling with similar experiences.

Later during the day, the Special Representative visited UNAMSIL’s Sector West Headquarters in Freetown where peacekeepers presented the Sector’s plan of action on child protection. Mr. Otunnu later met with representatives of more than 50 civil society organizations, who shared with him their activities in support of children’s welfare and their perceptions of the major challenges facing the country in the peace-building phase.

For further information, please contact in New York:

Jean-Victor Nkolo

Communications Officer, OSRSG

Tel: +1-212-963-9879, Fax: +1-212-963-0807;

In Freetown:

Masimba Tafirenyika

Acting Spokesman, UNAMSIL

Tel: +232-22-273183/4, ext. 6817,;

22/02-01/03: March: Margaret Novicki, Chief of Outreach, OSRSG

c/o UNAMSIL Tel: +232-22-273183/4, ext. 6817 or 6583,

OSRSG/PR03/08 25 February 2003