Margaret (not her real name) was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Uganda at the age of 13. This image and the others below demonstrate the power of photography to document child-rights violations while protecting the subjects from further harm.
By Ellen Tolmie and Rebecca Fordham
NEW YORK, USA, 6 August 2010 – UNICEF has updated its guidelines for reporting on children’s issues as part of the continuing global effort to ensure every child’s right to protection and dignity.
Grounded in the principle that children’s rights must be respected in all circumstances, the guidelines focus particularly on those who may be at risk of harm – including physical danger, psychological coercion or social stigmatization – if they are identified in media reports.
Identity protection in risk situations
The need for greater identity protection for some children became increasingly evident in international reporting during the 1990s. There were two main reasons for this: first, a rise in the number of conflicts that targeted civilians, including children; and second, a heightened awareness of the full range of children’s rights and their violation.
Some of the most egregious forms of violation include forcing children into armed conflict or sexually exploiting them. Children who suffer these abuses may risk being traumatized or stigmatized if their identities are publicly disclosed. The same holds true for children who are HIV-positive, or those who are charged or convicted of crimes.
Mohammad Amin, a former child soldier in the process of demobilization, looks at the countryside from atop the crumbling roof of a barracks in Bagram, Afghanistan.
UNICEF supports rigorous media coverage of child rights violations because reporting is crucial to raise awareness of their existence and advocate for putting a stop to them. But advocating against human rights abuses can also put individual children at risk of additional physical or psychological harm.
When to protect identities
“We have witnessed many instances where children have been further endangered or stigmatized after their stories are published,” notes UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, Susan Bissell. “Protecting against this requires that reporting on children in high-risk situations also respects their individual rights to privacy, to participate in decisions affecting them, and to protection.”
To ensure respect for these rights, UNICEF’s internal policies and external guidelines call for protecting the identities of children whenever publication of their stories may put them at risk.
UNICEF policy also requires that requests for identity protection from any child (or the child’s guardian) must be respected in all circumstances – whether or not they involve sexual exploitation, HIV/AIDS, criminal justice or child combatants.
A 13-year-old girl stands in the yard of the women's prison at Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
Protecting victims of sexual exploitation
Protecting the visual identities of child victims of sexual abuse has long been broadly supported; indeed, such protection is mandated by many countries’ national laws. This is partly because pornography (a visual depiction of sexual exploitation) is often an aspect of the abuse. Publishing the identities of sex abuse victims further exposes an intimate suffering that can deepen the sense of powerlessness and humiliation caused by the original violation.
In many communities around the world, identifying victims further stigmatizes them and increases their risk of future abuses.
Nevertheless, stopping sexual exploitation requires documentation of its pervasiveness. And cultural taboos against publicizing or even acknowledging the existence of sexual abuse can increase risks and give victims little recourse when it happens.
Non-sensational coverage of child soldiers
A parallel dynamic is at work in documenting the issue of child soldiers.
Media reports exposing the use of child combatants make a vital contribution to greater awareness of this gross exploitation and the global campaign to stop it. But to ensure that individual children are shielded against possible reprisals, stigma or worse, UNICEF protects the identities of all former or current child soldiers judged to be at risk.
A girl waits for court proceedings in a holding cell in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
This policy also protects against the sensational use of images that show armed child soldiers acting or posing as aggressors – including all those holding weapons.
Of course, armed child soldiers are threatening and dangerous (and are often drugged or otherwise de-sensitized to the damage they can do). As children, however, they are also, by definition, forced combatants. While recognizing the importance of reporting on them, UNICEF emphasizes their status as children and coerced victims, a status that is much harder to emphasize if they are represented in sensationalized ways.
Imagery that protects children
To address the challenge of protecting the visual identities of children at risk, UNICEF works with professional photographers and videographers who have demonstrated a key point: Imagery that fully protects the subject’s identity can be as powerful and convincing as any other approach to documenting abuses.
Creating such imagery often means allowing children to participate in the act of protection – by, for example, turning away from the camera or covering their faces. The result, far from being banal or evasive, dramatically represents the situation of at-risk children, underscoring the need for protection while also preserving their dignity.
UNICEF imagery that provides this level of protection demonstrates the power of photography and videography to document harsh realities while safeguarding child rights.
A 12-year-old girl at the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in North Darfur relates how she was separated from two friends while gathering firewood, and then raped by government soldiers.
‘Best interests of the child’
The question of whether or how to protect a subject’s identity is an editorial judgment that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In all cases, though, it should be based on the primacy of the ‘best interests of the child.’ This standard is the foundation of many national laws governing child protection and an over-arching principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To evaluate the need for identity protection of at-risk children, it helps to ask: If this were your child, would you permit her or his identity to be revealed in the context of a specific abuse, or with the potential for stigma?
Besides serving as a useful rule of thumb, this question promotes a view of every child – personally known or not, far away or close to home – as worthy of the same rights as all other children.
When identities are revealed
The principle of a child’s best interests also recognizes instances where risks are weighed and found to be in favour of publishing identities. This is the case with child advocates who choose to take a public stance on a potentially high-risk subject. Some former child soldiers, for example, testify openly to the brutality of their past experiences.
In such cases, children have a right to express themselves and participate in issues that directly affect them. Still, efforts must be made – especially when children remain in the community where the abuse occurred – to ensure that they understand the implications of their decision to speak out.
In the end, UNICEF’s position comes down to this: Protection against harm must be the over-riding premise for all interactions with children, including reporting.
About the authors: Ellen Tolmie is UNICEF’s Senior Photography Editor. Rebecca Fordham is UNICEF’s Media Specialist for Child Protection.