The highlight of the Ako Para Sa Bata Conference was the participation of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General (UN SRSG) on Violence against Children (VAC). Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid had a virtual dialogue with the panel of articulate youth delegates from the provinces of the three clusters of Luzon-Oriental Mindoro, Visayas-Capiz, and Mindanao-Davao.
Patrizia Benvenuti, Child Protection Chief, UNICEF Philippines introduced Dr. Najat M’jid. She explained that VAC is a global advocate for prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children. “The SRSG acts as a bridge builder and a catalyst of actions in all regions, and across sectors and settings where violence may occur. She mobilizes action and political support to maintain momentum around this agenda and generate renewed concern at the harmful effects of violence on children; to promote behavioral and social change, and achieve effective progress.”
Dr. Najat, a multi-awarded champion of VAC, has devoted the past three decades to the promotion and protection of children’s rights. She was Head of the Pediatric Department and Director of the Hay Hassani Mother-Child Hospital in Casablanca, Morocco, her country of origin. She has served as UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. She reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
Instead of a speech, there was a lively dialogue wherein Dr. Najat interacted with the youth. Moderator was Faye Balanon, UNICEF Child Protection officer. Here are some relevant excerpts.
“How COVID-19 has impacted the children’s lives in the Philippines,” Dr. Najat asked.
The delegates in the panel replied: “The Filipino youth are coping with the new normal. We are tired and stressed, sometimes depressed. But this is a wrong mindset. We should remain positive.”
They revealed that most Filipino parents lost their jobs and not all families were given the government-promised ayuda food assistance. This situation has pushed the poor hungry children to become involved in cybersex and exploitation.
“Filipino youth are mentally drained, stressed, anxious and depressed. Sometimes, they commit suicide.”
“The youth in the city are mentally exhausted and they have higher risk of getting COVID-19. The youth in the provinces struggle with their online learning due to poor internet connections and they have limited access to health services.”
“How can we reach the most vulnerable children?”
“Through distance learning by providing modules with psychosocial activities to aid children’s mental health. We need to identify the geographically isolated youth, those who need our help, and to coordinate with barangays in identifying them,” the delegates said.
“The situation is similar with other children worldwide, wherein the pandemic increased the inequalities that are already existing. This pandemic impacted the services that are already weak,” Dr. Najat said.
Her synthesis included the following:
o Great impact of mental health, education.
o Differences of impact between urban and rural areas.
o Stress on the families due to huge impact on socioeconomic status.
o Disparity on education and access to remote learning/internet.
o Increased risk of child sexual exploitation and child marriage.
“We have heard a lot of many youth initiatives. It’s not possible to prevent, respond and recover in all matters concerning children without putting children at the heart of the decision — listening to them informing, empowering them. Many children in the world are part of this youth initiative.” Dr. Najat commented.
“How can we make sure that child participation — ethical, inclusive, meaningful, empowering — is synthesized in all policy responses before, during and after the pandemic? How are we going to influence policy makers?
“Some policy makers are maybe listening but really hearing… This is our big challenge. I want policy makers to recognize that children are part of the solutions and not mere beneficiaries… not just one shot participation,” Dr. Najat said.
The youth delegates — Vincent, Jass, Cheverly and Noella of Team Positive — replied:
“The Youth today must be part of the solution. … If the youth is persistent, intelligent, innovative, engaged in research, we can form solutions. Youth leaders have these capacities.
“We can prove to them that we can be more and we can do more. We must build partnerships with youth organizations and the National Youth Commission… for our insights and suggestions to be heard… Communication is important. We need a lot of knowledge to have confidence to use our voice as the instrument to change something.”
Jodelyn, Team KaTEENig, added, “We should hear the voice of the youth and their problems and relay these to policy makers.”
Zandra and Kim of Team SK Nabunturan said: “We have passed resolution in Sangguniang Kabataan about programs to be discussed and implemented in the barangay council.”
“The youth holds the future of our nation.”
Dr. Najat synthesized,
o Using social media, connecting and partnering with other organizations, advocacy and raising awareness in changing the mindset of policy makers.
o You can do more and we need to provide you support to do more without “instrumentalizing” you.
o You are passionate and you believe in what you are doing. You are the future but you are also the present.
o You are involved in the implementation, monitoring and providing petitions.
“Share lessons learned. What I saw worldwide… youth and young children have lots of things to tell. There are many groups of children who are involved in building networks with schools and the community in preventing violence against children, to raise awareness, change mindset and work peer to peer….
“During this pandemic, there are child-led initiatives that provide peer-to-peer support, provide mental health, share experiences and build bridges even though confined,” Dr. Najat said. “Build bridges with others. Share your experiences. You have a great opportunity to have a strong movement with you, and for you.”
She observed that worldwide violence has increased — inside the home and online. There is cyber bullying, hate speech, and the enrolment of children in violent extremist groups. Vulnerable children have no access to services. The expected increase in poverty in 2021 will have an increased risk in child labor, child trafficking, child sexual exploitation, child marriage and discrimination.
“We are working on building back better. Here we need you,” she told the delegates. “Children have to be involved in designing, implementing and monitoring. (They) are seen as part of the solution.”
The UN SRSG and the Youth shared their parting messages.
“[Being a] child rights defender is about behavior and attitude… culture, values of listening and sharing and being humble. It is really important…,” Dr. Najat emphasized. “The children are the future of the nation. I am truly convinced that you are part of the solution. You are innovative and creative. You have the resolution …in implementation. You can collect many voices. We can use my mandate to provide the support needed.”
The youth leaders replied, “Youth should be God-fearing, good role models to inspire others to do better.”
“We are still showing our resiliency and innovative ways in keeping up with the new condition. Our service is… of the youth, by the youth and will be forever for the youth. It has been an incredible journey to be a part of this dialogue. Thank you for hearing the voices of the children.”
Congratulations to the 12th APSB Conference organizers and speakers, Child Protection Network Foundation, and UNICEF for this enlightening, relevant theme of “Care of the child against Violence in the time of Disease” and the far-reaching series of 23 webinars. It has focused on the most important issues and it has given the Child the much-needed voice. Hopefully, there will be an immediate, positive response. Mabuhay ang Bata!
Maria Victoria Rufino is an artist, writer and businesswoman. She is president and executive producer of Maverick Productions.