The Beung Xay village meeting hall was filled to overflowing. Young children sat in piles on the floor, while parents and grandparents leaned forward in their chairs, or stood on tiptoes to peer through the windows from outside.
The visiting Young Envoys from Unicef Hong Kong were seated around the edges at the front of the hall. All eyes were fixed in front of the Young Envoys, where a group of teenagers and an old woman huddled around a boy lying on the floor.
Suddenly the hall erupted in laughter as the old woman made an amusing show of spraying a mouthful of water over the boy. Giggles and cheers from the crowd momentarily drowned out the performance.
The skit was an educational illustration of the importance of seeking proper treatment for malaria and other sicknesses common in Saravane Province, in southern Laos. It was just a small part of a larger show, put on as part of the community outreach initiative by Youth Radio.
Established in 2004, Youth Radio is a programme set up and sponsored by Unicef Laos, where young volunteer reporters aged 12 to 18 produce weekly half-hour radio programmes to reach out to Laotian youth about important issues.
Almost 55 per cent of Laotian people are under 19-years-old. The 12 Youth Radio programmes across the country provide a chance for young people to hear about the issues they face directly from their peers.
Under the title “Open Hearts, Open Airwaves”, teams of young reporters tackle everything from economic and social change to children’s rights and problems such as domestic abuse.
Community outreach programmes are a major part of what the Youth Radio volunteers do as well; the Hong Kong Young Envoys got to see it first hand at the Beung Xay show during their trip to Laos in July.
Every month, the Youth Radio reporters put on “infotainment” shows. These involve engaging rural communities in education on health, nutrition and other important issues by using games, music and drama.
During these events, the reporters record interviews with village members which they can later use as part of their weekly radio broadcasts. The outreach shows also aim to be interactive; they try to get all members of the community involved and interested.
And just like the rest of the audience, the 25 Young Envoys from Hong Kong were not allowed to simply sit and watch. Instead, they were pulled on stage for songs, dancing, and games with the children in the audience. Children pressed forward to play games and the adults in the crowd craned their necks to watch, as the Youth Radio volunteers captivated the entire crowd.
After the outreach session was over, the Young Envoys sat down with the youngsters from the Youth Radio group to learn more about the programme.
Speaking through translators, the Youth Radio volunteers explained that they were recruited through their local Children’s Cultural Centres – an initiative sponsored by the Laotian Ministry of Information and Culture.
The teens talked about the projects they had worked on, including a small booklet designed to teach children about their rights, and help them defend themselves against abuse or exploitation.
The Young Envoys were impressed with the efforts. The students agreed that initiatives like Youth Radio could have a strong, positive impact on the country.
Josephine Lam Wai-may, 16, from King George V School, said that Youth Radio fit in well with Unicef’s other efforts in Laos.
“I think Unicef has quite a lot of long-term planning,” she said. “There’s a lot on education.”
Natalie Fung Chi-ying agreed that education was important for moving the country forward.
“It focuses on the younger generation,” said Natalie. “Because they will take this tradition and pass it on to the next generation.”
Reaching out to the young people of Laos is what the Youth Radio initiative is all about. By promoting youth participation, the programme hopes to encourage young people to take a more active role in the society around them, while also providing them with the information they need to advocate for their own rights.
It’s an important step in improving everything from hygiene and health to nutrition and children’s rights in rural villages and communities. By calling attention to the issues, the Youth Radio programme helps villagers identify the small changes they can make for the better.
As Janita Lit, 15 from Diocesan Girls’ School pointed out: “Changing the habit is most important.”
Want to take part?
Unicef Hong Kong is now taking applications for Young Envoys 2015. You must be between 12 and 18 years old and a full-time secondary school student.
Application deadline: October 31
For more information, visit Unicef.