Statement by Maria Calivis, UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe to the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics Regional Consultation on Children and Violence in Europe and Central Asia
I am delighted to be with you today – although I must pass on deepest apologies from Rima Salah, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, who has been delayed by the weather. She will arrive tonight to attend her eighth Regional Consultation on Violence against Children and will, I am sure, meet as many of you as possible in the next two days. My thanks to Prime Minister Jansa for his warm welcome and inspiring words and to his Government for making this possible. And my greetings to Professor Pinheiro, who is leading the UN Study on this issue, to Maud de Boer-Buquichhio, Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, to my UN and NGO colleagues, and to all young participants in this groundbreaking event. It was high time we met to discuss this crisis.
No culture, religion or society condones violence against children. But in the next 24 hours, four children in the European region will die as a result of violence. And those are the cases that come to light – there are many more that don’t.
The children of this region are as vulnerable to violence as children anywhere else in the world. And children face violence in all of the four settings we will discuss – in their homes, in their schools, in their communities and in residential institutions. Violence against children is hidden and corrosive, destroying lives and potential and breeding societies that accept the unacceptable – that children can be beaten, tortured and humiliated.
We are here because this must stop. We are here because, working together, we can make it stop.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child demands the physical integrity, safety and dignity of every child. The countries of this region have laws to protect children from violence. Every child has the right to grow up without violence. But somewhere between theory and practice something is missing. Our task is to bridge that gap, to re-affirm our own responsibilities to build a protective environment around all children – an environment in which violence against children is history.
This Consultation aims to mobilise everyone – Governments, UN agencies, professionals, civil society, communities, families and children themselves – to act now. While the discussions will contribute to the UN Study on Violence Against Children, due to go before the UN General Assembly in 2006, it is clear that we cannot wait another year, or even one more day.
We must ask why, when every child has the absolute right to a non-violent upbringing, so many continue to suffer. We must examine the causes of violence: the discrimination that fuels violence against children because of their gender, their ethnicity, their disability or their religion; the frustration, isolation and poor parenting that can lead to abuse and neglect; the social acceptance that allows children to be treated with cruelty.
We will discuss the challenges, including the stale old myths that surround violence … and here I quote .. “it never did me any harm”; “it’s none of my business”; “kids get over it “… all of these are myths and all of them are dangerous.
Then there is the knowledge gap caused by lack of data. We do not how many children witness violence, how many experience it, how many die. But a look at the four settings to be examined at this Consultation: homes, schools, communities and institutions is enough to tell us that children are suffering.
First the home – the assumption being that this is the safest place of all. Yet European infants and young children are most likely to be abused in the very place where they spend up to 90 per cent of their time. Family violence still claims the lives of over 1,300 children every year. Our fear is that this is the tip of the iceberg. We can be sure that for every child who dies, thousands more endure violent abuse at the hands of those closest to them.
There has been some progress in schools. Almost every country in this region has outlawed corporal punishment in education. But teachers still have a duty to tackle the violence that waits in the shadows – particularly bullying. Children who are different – cleverer, bigger or smaller, who have a different-coloured skin or a different accent – are often targeted.
When it comes to violence in the community, studies show that no country is exempt. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia in particular, poverty is pushing more and more children onto the streets. Half of the street children in St. Petersburg are thought to be under 13 years old. They face appalling dangers – gang violence, the horrors of child prostitution, drug abuse. But violence against children in the community goes beyond the streets. Even the most structured areas of community life can have hidden dangers. Children face violence in leisure time, in clubs and even in religious settings. They may be forced to train too hard for competitive sports, or face corporal punishment or sexual abuse by those supposed to be caring for them.
The estimated one million children in residential institutions across the region are desperately vulnerable to violence because they are separated from society and live in a closed environment. And the more closed that environment is, the greater the risk of violence and the smaller the chance that it will be reported.
Children in residential institutions – indeed many of the children who experience violence – may have nobody to turn to. The protective environment that should care for them: the state and its institutions; the community; the family – has failed them.
So, what does the UN want from this Consultation?
First, all forms of violence against children must be banned, wherever, whenever they occur, whether in the home, on the streets, in the classroom or in institutions. No exceptions.
Second, violence must be clearly defined so that equal standards apply in every country, helping to ensure that no act of violence is tolerated.
We need to shine a spotlight on this issue, with public information campaigns to give people the facts, no matter how unpalatable these may be.
We need strategies to prevent violence against children that reinforce the responsibilities of everyone, from governments to civil society to media to families. And we need to boost the capacity of all sectors to identify violence against children and take action.
It is vital to document this problem – gathering crucial, standardised and harmonised data – if we are to understand its scale. We must monitor and evaluate our efforts and intervene in a way that puts the best interests of the child first and foremost.
We need good data, and here I would like to recommend three resources available at this Consultation from the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence. First, UN Human Rights Standards and Mechanisms to Combat Violence against Children, which sets out the human rights framework on this issue. Second, a compendium of Council of Europe Action to Promote Children’s Rights to Protection from All Forms of Violence, reflecting the standard setting of the Council over the past half century. And finally, Innocenti Studies on Violence against Children – a CD-rom pulling together all the Innocenti research of the last decade on this issue.
States have a duty to support families so that they can do their job of raising happy, healthy children. States also have a duty to ensure that all professionals working with children hold to the very highest standards. And professionals themselves have a duty to strive for excellence in all their dealings with children. Good parenting and good professional standards must, by definition, rule out violence.
And, very importantly, we have to ensure that children and young people have an active role. They have the greatest stake in ensuring that we get it right, and we rely on the young people here at this Consultation to keep us on track. This Consultation is a pioneering example of partnership and alliance-building. It has been fuelled by a strong alliance between the Government of Slovenia, the Council of Europe and the NGO Advisory Panel for the UN Study on Violence against Children, backed by an intense collaboration between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, WHO and UNICEF.
These diverse bodies are united behind a common goal – ensuring, once and for all, that all children in this region, no matter what their religion, culture, traditions, background or age, can enjoy fulfilling lives free from violence. UNICEF believes that this goal is realistic and achievable. We simply need – above all – the sheer will to make it happen.
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8 April 2005: UNICEF correspondent Dan Thomas reports on UNICEF’s child protection work in Moldova ahead of the Consultation on Violence against Children in Europe and Central Asia, held in Slovenia this July.