One day, within the next thousand years, we will have a world fit for children. In that world, children everywhere will get the best that life can give them, for they will be the most protected species on this planet. Families will be recognised as the basic and most important part of a child's development. And all of us, as global caregivers, will ensure that our children grow up in a safe and stable environment.
That is the vision of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Children.
Right now there are thousands of missing children, abducted children. There are runaway children and throwaway children. Children are exploited by those closest and dearest to them. And then there are the unknown predators lurking in the shadows all the time. Much of the violence remains hidden. That is because children are often afraid to identify perpetrators – parents, schoolmates, teachers or employers – since they also usually depend on them.
Safety for our children will, in the long run, depend to a large extent on our own attitudes towards them.
As elders we exploit the relationship which we enjoy and we use this superior power to make sure that our children are compliant. When we defend our right to smack our children, we are giving them permission, in perpetuity, to go on abusing those weaker than themselves.
Children are 100% our future. They need to know 100% that they are safe. They deserve our respect. They need constant reassurances that we respect their intelligence, and that they must always respect their own instincts. A vital element of the fight against violence against our children is self-empowerment. Children know how to do what is right for them.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that recognises the human rights of children (defined as any human being under the age of 18), underscores the importance of child participation in measures that are taken for their protection. There are inter-country partnerships set up for child protection. There are inter-religious efforts to protect the young worldwide. Within countries themselves there is child-safety legislation.
But if expenditure on child protection is not a national priority, then legislation is like a dog without teeth.
Closer, much closer to the child, are the evils that children have to fight every day of their lives. They need personal tools to keep themselves safe.
A simple example is bullying. On any given school day, at least one child will be bullied in each classroom. The World Health Organization (WHO) Global School-Based Student Health Survey of 2006 found that 20 to 65 per cent of the world's school-aged children had been verbally or physically bullied. Bullying is everywhere, and cyber-bullying is part of many of our children's lives, especially in industrialised countries.
Another example is sexual violence. The WHO estimates that 150 million girls and 73 million boys experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence during 2002.
Children with disabilities are the most vulnerable. They may have more difficulty in defending themselves, less voice with which to report abuse, and their accounts are often regarded as less plausible and are more often dismissed or not believed.
How do we make sure that our children have, within themselves, the power, confidence and tools to fight the evils they face each day? We can empower them with the simple tools of confidence and self-belief. We can teach them what to do if under attack because they know they have rights and they know how to protect themselves.
Who should be doing this teaching?
Interestingly, in a 2007 study conducted by Andrea Hollomotz: Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom (UK), the children chose Police Education Officers as the best people to conduct this teaching. Nearly all of the students (96%) said that personal safety skills should be taught in schools to help children to stay safe from the risk of sexual abuse. (http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/hollomotz/Beyond%20v...)
The popularity of Police Education Officers was attributed to their knowledge of the world of adolescents, their experience of abuse and abusers, and the belief that they can be trusted with confidential information. (Some students explained that teachers were remote from the world of adolescents and could not be trusted to maintain confidentiality.)
Be that as it may, safety education programmes should be a priority in schools, with children and their caregivers brought together in the classroom so that they can learn together. In this way, the lessons learnt will be reinforced in the home. Both caregivers and children will together see the importance of, and have the chance to practise, the physical and verbal responses needed by the children to keep them safe.
I spoke with a small nonprofit organisation that is having a big influence worldwide in strengthening the power of children to look after themselves. Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International teaches us as adults to work with our children for their safety, through lessons such as keeping calm, knowing how to say ‘no’, learning escape mechanisms, knowing when barriers are crossed, and understanding how and when to walk away.
Kidpower was established in the United States in 1989 and has reached over 2 million people in more than 40 different countries. It teaches adults how to prepare children to speak up powerfully and respectfully, to set their own boundaries, and to know when to say ‘no’, no matter the age of the person in front of them.
Looking at the Kidpower website, I wondered if what they are teaching could be transplanted into non-developed countries, where cultural suspicions and expectations are different? In some societies, ethnic bonds are strong and are jealously guarded. For example, the cultural expectation that children do not speak up and do not question their elders, no matter what the elders do to them, is how things are done.
How can Kidpower work in those surroundings? Will the adults not object to a training that teaches the children to speak up for themselves, even if this is uncomfortable to the elders?
I discussed this with Ashleigh Curry, a trainer for Kidpower. Her response was very matter of fact. She had done a training course with children, parents and staff in an orphanage and school in Zimbabwe through the Villages of Hope. Teachers also came from Malawi and Zambia to participate in the programme:
'If you look at it,' she said, 'we all want our children to be safe. We all want protection for them. But in some of our cultures safety is seen differently.'
Indeed, we have different antennae for picking up danger. For example some of our older folk, especially in rural societies, might never even suspect that another elder might be an abuser, because this sad reality has never entered the cultural consciousness.
So Kidpower starts with educating the elders before teaching the children. More often than not, people who have never dreamed of this possibility might at first be shocked, even angered. But when they get home from the training another elder – an aunt, uncle, or even the child – might start to talk about bad things that have happened in their family, school, or community. Then, slowly elders will learn to accept the insidiousness of child abuse and bullying.
In the long run, all cultures are cultures of respect, although differently applied. When we become aware, all of us agree that we will not allow a culture that abuses children. So the initial shock and anger can quickly be turned into action if elders are made aware of the dangers. There is always a large, silent majority outside the training room that will agree and give support.
Some generations will find a respectful way of carrying the message. For example, aunts and uncles are often much more aware. They are there, in each culture, no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the older generation upholding beliefs that abuse children, and to support children having a right to say ‘no’. Training children and other responsible adults together is half the battle won. We need to believe this and must not lose heart. Those who hear us will carry the message out of the classroom into the community.
The other aspect I wondered about was whether the tools Kidpower uses could be transported to learners in non-industrialised countries where needs differ. Do the Kidpower lessons taught using computers, for example, need to be adapted to the circumstances in different communities, such as those where computers are non-existent?
Ashleigh at Kidpower told me how the manager of the orphanage where the training was taking place in Zimbabwe changed the class plan considerably to be 'Africa relevant', as the manager called it. She substituted fires for computers where the latter appeared at the centre of a lesson about a child interrupting a busy adult to get help. The manager also removed the teaching about saying ‘no’ to an elder, out of respect, she said, for the senior people of the community.
When Ashleigh worked with the caregivers, she said to them, 'I'm open to whatever you want to do. I can also adapt. You tell me what you think.'
They all said they did not want adaptations but wanted the programme to be done exactly as it is in the US. As the children at that orphanage did in fact have access to computers, the group of caregivers, which included men and women, insisted that these tools be placed back into the teaching plan. They wanted to revert to the original programme. And so it was done.
Lesson: We should not impose our own expectations on what local communities want.
When it comes to government policy, child protection can be higher up on the agenda in countries such as the US and UK because the basic needs of their children, such as having a place to sleep and food to eat, are already being broadly met. The issue of street children also presents a bigger issue in developing countries, where governments are not set up to help children as a priority. Although they might have laws in place for child safety, their budgets are not dedicated to enforcing those laws, therefore child protection, especially in so-called 'fragile states' of conflict, sinks very low on their list of priorities. And when the government itself is not obviously on the people's side, social services tend to prioritize 'bread and butter' issues like shelter and health.
So without a budget that supports protection, arms need to be linked between all organisations, caregivers, communities and the government until child protection becomes a major consideration for state budgets everywhere.
We must each equip ourselves with tools to go out and spread the word of safety, each person individually within our immediate neighbourhoods, where people know us and trust us with their children.
Often it is difficult for schools to get parents to give their time to work with children in this way. When parents don't show up, ('I don't want busybodies to tell me how to treat my kids’) - go there anyway and talk, talk, talk. Teach the children ways to protect themselves.
If each of us continues to do what we see needs to be done, then at some time our joint efforts against the pandemic of child abuse will reach its 'tipping point'. That is when the changed behaviour and attitudes we advocate will 'cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire.' (see a book worth reading: 'The Tipping Point – How little things can make a big difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Abacus, 2005)
Kidpower believes this. It says ONE MILLION SAFER KIDS BEGINS WITH ONE: One child, one parent, one skill, one teacher, one school, one article, one book, one idea, one gift… one moment… Any one of us can be the tipping point that turns the tide towards the realisation of a world where all children are safe.
- The Kidpower website is full of important free resources – check it out: http://www.kidpower.org/millionsafer/
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignments: Feature Stories