Article by Yumi Matsuda, UNICEF Rwanda Chief of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation; Veronica Houser, UNICEF Rwanda Communications Consultant; Jean-Claude Nyirimanzi, NISR Team Leader, Research, Publication and Documentation; Ruben Muhayiteto, NISR Data Portals Management Officer, 17 July 2017
Josiah is 13 years old. He likes to study geography in school, and he recently participated in Reading Data with Children, a collaborative event between UNICEF and the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR), organized as part of Africa Statistics Day.
Nowadays, he is a strong advocate for children’s rights at home, at school, and in his community by using the statistics as a tool. At Reading Data with Children, Josiah learnt about the great progress Rwanda made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. To quote Josiah’s own sentiment,
Life is all about setting goals. Without data, we don’t know how things were 15 years ago, and we don’t know how we want to be 15 years from now. This is what I learnt from the discussion on the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals
RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF STATISTICS
Every year in November, the African statistical community celebrates Africa Statistics Day to raise public awareness about the importance of statistics in economic and social development. NISR and UNICEF recognize that not only are children the most seriously affected by development, but are also the future leaders and citizens who will have to live with its consequences. Therefore, the two agencies organized Reading Data with Children to compliment Africa Statistics Day, inviting children to discuss issues related to children’s rights and using Rwanda’s latest data from the Demographic and Health Survey and the Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey. Discussions focused on the most recent socio-economic indicators related to children’s rights, and were followed by a creative painting session to help children visually express issues of equity and relate them to their own lives. To promote inclusiveness, a partnership was established with the National Commission for Children and the National Council of Persons with Disabilities. Data-themed t-shirts were designed to further nurture solidarity and inclusion among the participants.
THE LAUNCH OF READING DATA WITH CHILDREN: A SUCCESS IN RWANDA
The Reading Data with Children event turned out to be very successful . About 50 children between 12 and 17 participated, boasting equal rates of girls and boys, including some children with disabilities. Children were fascinated by Rwanda’s Millennium Development Goal achievements, and by reading statistics for the first time. They absorbed key messages quickly, such as the importance of education for girls and the correlation between educated mothers and good healthcare practices.
Without being prompted, one girl reacted quickly when she noticed the graph showing steadily increasing institutional delivery rates in Rwanda. “Some women are still dying during delivery, as they do not have an access to health facilities,” she said. “I know these things are really happening. I think it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that all women have access to medical services. In the future, I would like to see every mother informed about proper childcare in Rwanda.”
Participants were emphatically voicing their opinions, one after another, both vocally and through sign language. They shared vivid stories about related situations in their own communities. They eloquently requested the Government’s commitment to universal access to education. The children were powerful, vocal, and fearless. Officials present at the event were simultaneously overwhelmed and impressed by the children’s active engagement.
JOSIAH: A BOY TRANSFORMED BY DATA
At the Reading Data with Children event, Josiah was fascinated by Rwanda’s human development statistics, which he had never seen before. At the official Africa Statistics Day ceremony, Josiah represented the other participants and presented his analysis to more than 200 people, including high ranking officials from the Board of NISR. He pointed to a colorful map of Rwanda, showing the disparity in stunting rates between districts. “As you can see, many children are suffering from malnutrition in the Western Province,” he began. “It is your responsibility to ensure that every child has a balanced diet.” He presented for 20 minutes with no pause, confident and assertive, empowered by the data he had absorbed.
Two months later, NISR and UNICEF visited Josiah at his home in Kigali. Josiah answered the door, hardly recognizable in his sudden shyness. It was difficult to remember that he had spoken so eloquently at the event; outside of the Reading Data with Children context, he behaved like any other 13 year old boy. The interview took place in the evening, when Josiah’s father insisted that all family members would be present for the visit. Josiah sat in the living room next to his father and shared his recollections of the Reading Data event. That day, immediately after returning home, Josiah told his parents and siblings, “We need to make sure that we all eat a balanced diet!” His advocacy did not stop there. The following day, he prepared a school report and presented recommendations to his teachers. “I told my teachers that they need to do more research by making the best use of internet and digital information in order to enrich their class,” he said. “I was inspired by the discussion about the rates of Internet access in Rwanda.”
Using the handouts distributed at the Reading Data event, Josiah approached his friends and showed the maps and graphs. “Don’t just wait for others to come and help you by staying home and watching television,” he told them. “We must take care of ourselves first, and next we need to stand up and go help others.” He told them about his presentation at Africa Statistics Day and how children are suffering from malnutrition. Although his stories and handouts were foreign to his classmates, it did not take long for his ideas to spread around his neighborhood.
Josiah reminded his visitors that the Global Goals are all about real lives after all. Human development, politics, economy and social welfare are often discussed as if they exist in a world of opinion and subjectivity, but how many people can ascribe real meaning to the Goals like Josiah? After speaking with Josiah, it was not difficult to believe that children are truly the future of development; his words were so wise and inspiring, and much more powerful than the perceived ivory tower where adult opinions are manifest.
Adults have a lot to learn from children, from the way they read and interpret data to how they view the world through data, and most importantly, how a 13 year old can be empowered and confident if given the opportunity. Josiah wants to pursue a career in international development studies. “After graduating from school, I want to work to improve the education, health, and economy of Rwanda, as I realized that we still have many problems,” he said. “No matter how difficult, I will achieve my dreams step by step. After achieving one goal, I will set another, because life is about moving ahead by setting goals.”
Noting the success of Reading Data with Children, NISR proposed that the event should be an official part of the Africa Statistics Day celebration in Rwanda, and requested UNICEF’s continued support in this endeavor. In order to reach more children, NISR also proposed to make statistical discussions an official extracurricular activity in secondary schools .
 A publication guide for teachers is accessible here.