Marta Santos Pais grew up in a happy home in Portugal. Seeing Roma girls her own age treated as outcasts and hearing stories from her father – a child welfare judge – about countless cases of her peers trapped in poverty and abandoned by their parents, troubled her, kindling a sense of duty to help others less fortunate.
Today, as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Mrs. Santos Pais mobilizes action to end maltreatment of children around the world and implement the recommendations, adopted by the General Assembly (GA) in 2006, of the UN’s first comprehensive study on the subject. More than half of all children suffer from physical, sexual and psychological abuse, according to the GA study.
Today things have changed dramatically, and more and more, we see children as agents of change.
As of this year, the global eradication of all child abuse, exploitation and all other forms of violence against children is part of the universally approved 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Ahead of the International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression, marked annually on 4 June, the UN News Centre sat down with Mrs. Santos Pais. The interview touched on the state of the world’s children and her work with UN entities, governments, regional organizations and civil society partners to effect positive change.
UN News Centre: Ten years ago, the UN released a global study on violence against children that said the problem was widespread and often underreported. Is the world a safer place for children today?
Mrs. Santos Pais: It is better in the sense that we have it now more strongly anchored in the policy agenda of the United Nations, regional organizations and countries around the world. It’s a topic we talk more [about] in the public debate and that children more easily bring into the open. But when we try to compare the magnitude of the problem when the study was issued in 2006 [versus] today, it’s difficult to do because we didn’t have the data and information that was required to do that kind of comparison. Still today, it is very widely accepted, very pervasive and affects millions of children. In fact, last year [more than one billion children] between two and 17 years of age were affected by some form of violence – physical, psychological or sexual. The rates of homicide affect particularly, in a devastating manner, children below the age of 15. Eight per cent of global homicides affect children.
When we talk about child trafficking, the face of children is very visible. In some regions, more than 60 per cent of the victims are children. Even if we recognize that we have better legislation, better policies, better data in a number of countries, we talk more and with greater confidence about what can help prevent and address violence, we still have countless thousands of kids whose life is shaped by dramatic levels of violence and that’s what we need to overcome now. That’s why we want to continue to implement the recommendations of the study and mobilize wide support around the world.
UN News Centre: The UN’s development agenda includes for the first time a specific target to end all forms of violence against children by 2030. How will this be achieved?
Mrs. Santos Pais: This is a huge achievement. It may seem a too ambitious goal but we believe it is achievable. And we say that with the confidence of the progress that we have seen happening over the past years. The real difference needs to happen at the national level. The first thing that we hope to see are more countries including, in their national development agendas, the priority of [ending] violence against children.
In the process of preparing this new global development agenda there were many important consultations that were organized at the regional, global and national level, and more than 800,000 children very seriously contributed to those discussions. The top concern that they expressed when interviewed was systematic violence against children, very often violence in schools. But mainstreaming this agenda at the national level is not simply saying that we have a law. If we do not allocate the necessary resources for implementation, if this does not become a concern that professionals who work in a school, a hospital, a community centres or in a recreation centre feel it’s imperative to contribute to the same goal, we will not achieve it.
This is the reason why we decided to launch recently a very important initiative called “High Time to End Violence against Children,” which we hope will convey that sense of urgency and absolutely no acceptance or complacency.
UN News Centre: Tell us more about this initiative.
Mrs. Santos Pais: The launch of the initiative coincides with the beginning of the implementation of the new global development agenda. Now we can really try to rally efforts, reignite the commitment of governments, international organizations, civil society partners, religious leaders, community leaders. We are stressing that everybody is needed and everybody counts in the countdown to 2030.
We feel very excited about such a movement and that children and young people are joining hands with us in this process. In fact, when we launched it we had a wonderful champion on the rights of the child and the fight against violence against children joining us from Liberia, as an ambassador of the millions of other children.
UN News Centre: An estimated 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. If current trends continue, 15 million more girls aged 15 to 19 will be subjected to it by 2030. As more countries join the legal ban on female genital mutilation, what tools are available for governments to stop the practice?
Mrs. Santos Pais: The fact that the international community has recognized its pressing nature and has included it as a very specific target in the [new global development] agenda shows that there is a very shared concern for this practice. Certainly, it is very important to have strong legislation because the legislation conveys a message to society about what is acceptable and what is non-negotiable. It can help to mobilize all those in society who can help us change very deeply-rooted social conventions, perceptions and beliefs that people have never questioned.
But the change can only happen when we engage in a real conversation with the communities where the practice is maintained, when we listen to the reasons why it has been kept, for instance, because a girl who does not undergo the practice is perceived to be not fit for marriage. When we understand the reasons we can work together on trying to overcome them.
And we see today wonderful initiatives. In some of the communities in Africa where community leaders, the elders of the village, the women’s grassroots organizations organize a passage into adulthood with dances and song and celebration to really mark a new stage in the life of a girl. But without associating it with the practice that is violent in itself and creates incredibly negative impacts for the girl concerned, certainly health challenges in her present life, also in her future when giving birth. Very often girls are not able to attend school when they undergo the practice.
We feel very confident that this can work because we have seen thousands of communities, particularly in West Africa, adhering to this movement and committing to an abandonment of the practice and engaging with other neighbouring communities to reach the same results. We have 22 countries that have strong laws condemning the practice and that in itself is a strong indication that we are moving in the right direction.
UN News Centre: Child refugees and children living in war-torn nations like Syria and South Sudan are at a very high risk of violence and trafficking. What is being done to protect them?
Mrs. Santos Pais: I am particularly concerned about the situation of these children. Over the past few months of the wave of refugees, asylum seekers and [people] considered to be migrants who have reached Europe, 40 per cent are children. We are not talking about a small number. We are talking about countless thousands of kids. We know that they have witnessed the killing of members of their families, of their best friends. And we know that along the way to reach, hopefully, a safe haven, they undergo traumatic situations of humiliation, of hunger, of stigmatization and very often xenophobic attitudes.
At the same time, they are not recognized as being, above all, children. We are particularly worried that the face of the child, in a way, has become a bit diluted when governments are trying to find a solution to address this issue.
On the one hand, we feel encouraged by the fact that so many organizations across the United Nations system are joining hands to address this topic. No doubt UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] are playing a wonderful role. So many civil society partners are joining hands and very often taking the first level of intervention. And we see countless people who are just common citizens taking a stand against the ill treatment, the humiliation, the neglect of children who enter their countries. When we see that movement, we can help.
What is fundamental is that we safeguard the rights of each and every child. And that starts with the moment when we try to identify: is this a child or an adult? Does this girl or boy require the special protection of someone who talks the same language? Who listens to their story? Who registers them so we can trace their family members? Someone who helps to prevent future risks of trafficking for instance of those kids?
Europol a few months ago published a report where it recognized that more than 10,000 children that had reached European countries had disappeared from the centres where they had been placed. These kids may be facing dramatic risks of trafficking, sexual abuse and labour exploitation. We don’t know where they are. In itself, that is really a call for urgent action by all of us. We are confident that a number of initiatives taking place in the United Nations very soon will help to put the face of the child at the center of the concerns, certainly the World Humanitarian Summit. Also, later in the year, in the context of the General Assembly there is going to be a high-level discussion on migrants and refugees. With many partners we are very committed to helping to make that happen.
UN News Centre: Information technology is now an integral part of a child’s life. What is being done to ensure Internet safety so children do not fall prey to online sexual predators and cyberbullying?
Mrs. Santos Pais: These technologies offer huge opportunities for children, for instance to make them aware of their fundamental rights, to let them know about where they can go if they are at risk of being victims of violence or if they suffer sexual abuse or humiliation, who is ready to help them. But there are risks associated.
We know more and more of cases of children who are trafficked by use of the technologies and we know that the number of images depicting children in sexually abused situations is growing dramatically. In the course of a decade the growth of the number of sexual abuse images of children was more than 1,500 per cent. More than 80 per cent of those images depict children below the age of 10 and many of them are below the age of two. Law enforcement agencies are facing dramatic challenges, but they are working together to go faster than the development of the new technologies. What we see working is a multi-faceted strategy in a way. The first thing that we need to do is to work with children. We need to alert them to the risks, empower then to know where not to go, what are the paths that they can follow with confidence.
And we need to work with parents. There is a huge digital divide between generations. Parents very often feel disempowered because they don’t know how to advise their children. They feel either very frightened and they want to find all the censorship solutions that can help reduce the risk or they say “you will not use the iPad or the iPhone.” We need to empower parents and support them with the skills and knowledge so that they can work with their children. The same way we cross the street giving a hand to our little kid, we need to give a hand to our children so they can engage in cyberspace.
But we also need to empower professionals. Cyberbullying is something that happens anywhere. It can start at school. But very often teachers don’t receive the necessary training or skills. The children do not ask for support because they feel that they are going to be punished rather than supported and assisted. If the school can become the place where the teacher is empowered and knowledgeable and the child trusts the teacher and parents can come and learn and be part of a debate, then things change. We have seen in many countries, like Costa Rica and the Philippines, where initiatives like this are really being promoted and where the risks are getting perhaps less visible. And children and everyone else feels better and more empowered in the use of these technologies.
UN News Centre: Recently, you were in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, to take part in the launch of a state-sponsored campaign to end violence against children there. What was your message?
Mrs. Santos Pais: It was the first country in West Africa that has developed a survey on violence against children. With a call for a year of action to end violence against children, [it] was launched by the President himself in September 2015. I feel very encouraged by the great determination of the President of Nigeria to expose the magnitude of the problem. At the same time to present to the nation a commitment of the government to a policy agenda that everybody is encouraged to implement.
My message was to also emphasize how important it is to meet the expectation of the call for action. If the policy agenda is not made known to the people of Nigeria, if the state governors don’t feel the ownership behind it and do not translate it into their own communities, if we don’t bring it to the home of each and every family, naturally all these beautiful texts and data that have been collected will remain a very distant reference for people.
I was very encouraged, for instance, by a wonderful meeting we had with religious leaders from all different faiths in Nigeria who joined in a whole-day discussion to identify commitments that they would pursue in promoting the implementation of this common agenda. I hope many other actions will follow in Nigeria and in neighboring countries.
UN News Centre: In February, you travelled to Indonesia to meet with the Deputy Secretary-General of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and senior Indonesian officials. What policy strategies did you discuss for the region?
Mrs. Santos Pais: ASEAN is the first region that has adopted [in November 2015] a very strong regional plan to eliminate all forms of violence against children, aligned with the new global development agenda. My visit was to sit and engage in a very important dialogue with the members of the ASEAN Commission on the Rights of Children and Women in Jakarta on how they are anticipating the implementation of this plan. I felt very encouraged by the strong sense of commitment and leadership that was expressed in that meeting.
This helped to raise huge awareness in the country about the impact of violence on children in Indonesia, about strategies that can help prevent it, the strong legislation, the coordination of action at the national and subnational level. I was very encouraged that in the country one of the key priorities is to decentralize the budget to make sure that across the islands that compose the archipelago the local authorities will have the resources to implement the national strategy. The next High-level Political Forum will take place here in July in New York and it will be a great opportunity for nations to tell about these good practices that can encourage other countries to replicate.
UN News Centre: In your annual report to the Human Rights Council on 8 March, you said more than 50 countries have enacted laws banning violence against children. Is this a sign of a growing commitment by governments to recognize and address the problem?
Mrs. Santos Pais: I believe that legislation legitimizes the action in a country to move in the right direction and conveys to society a very strong message of what is acceptable and what the society cannot accept. It’s one of my key priorities to support Governments, to support parliaments in the development of strong national legislation. There are more than 50 countries today that have such legislation and in some cases it’s even in the Constitution of the country.
But it’s not sufficient. When we have a strong legislation that people don’t know of, are not trained to use, [and] the law is not applied in courts, or in police stations or in welfare institutions, in detention centres, then we need to ask ourselves, what is the value of the law? So we have been very eager to support enforcement efforts. First of all, disseminate information about what is the law conveying and how we can translate it into things that people understand, including children. And we have fabulous initiatives – the oldest adopted by Sweden in 1979. The Swedish authorities decided to launch the legislation with a huge information and education campaign. So you could find notices about the legislation in the bus stop, in the carton of milk that was reaching the home of every family. It was debated in schools, in training centres for professionals.
More than 70 countries have today an ombudsman institution or national independent institution for children’s rights to help implement [the law] and we hope that other countries will follow. More than 50 other countries have committed to adopt such legislation and some of them are very, very, very near its adoption in the national congress or assembly. Less than 10 per cent of the children of the world have a law that protects them, so we need to do much more.
UN News Centre: You helped draft the landmark 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child and its three Optional Protocols. How are these treaties relevant on the ground?
Mrs. Santos Pais: The treaties are extremely important. If I think back about how the world was in the ‘80s when we were drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children were very invisible. They were not perceived as having the voice to contribute to our debates and to influence our decisions and to think with their own heads and minds. Today things have changed dramatically, and more and more, we see children as agents of change. In all countries we see this happening. It’s really very encouraging. And so these treaties help in a way challenging the country that commits to feel bound by them, to change the legislation, the policy, the practice, the mindset of people in relation to the rights of children.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified in the whole history of the United Nations. It’s in force in 196 countries. Only one country is missing, and we hope it will join soon, which is the United States. The protocols are the same: the protocol on the protection of children from sale, from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, and pornography is in force in 173 countries.
So this commitment creates a platform for us to engage in dialogue with governments and to see: how can we help you narrow the gap between your commitment and reality? How can we bring good experiences from other countries that can give you ideas? How can we sit together with different countries in the region to learn from each other? And, therefore, we are seeing clearly an increasing change happening.
But we feel very impatient. When we talk about children, it can take a minute to destroy the childhood of anyone. Therefore, the fact that it is taking so long makes us feel very pressed by the urgency of moving much faster. We hope that all of us will help in this course.
UN News Centre: What inspired you to become an advocate for children? Was there a particular moment or experience in your life?
Mrs. Santos Pais: I was a very happy child. And I was very privileged to have a wonderful family who believed in me, encouraged me, supported me, who always said you can reach the frontier you establish for yourself and go beyond it. My mother was a teacher dealing with so many kids, some much less fortunate than I was, and my father was a judge of children and telling me stories that were so dramatically different from my own existence. I remember how shocked I was when I was still very, very small, and my dad was telling me about the families who could not afford to take care of their kids and were putting them in an institution. And they felt – which I hear today so often from children who are abandoned or who are placed in detention – “it is as if we are people of no value and without values.”
So that triggered in me a sense of unfairness and injustice that I didn’t want to be part of. I wanted to contribute, little steps, to make a difference. But there was perhaps one incident: I was only six or five, and in the village that I was spending my holiday, there were a number of families of Roma origin. At that time, there was this perception that perhaps these are families that may steal kids and they are a danger and you should not engage with them. Those children were watching us play and laugh [but] keeping a distance. I brought them in. I remember I said “why won’t you play with us.”
The fact that you can always look around yourself and see who is not enjoying the same sense of belonging that you have, who feels not part of the game, who feels disadvantage in opportunity, not because he or she cannot achieve better than you do. But because birth set a kind of certificate that is setting the path for those kids that are going to be with them for so long. That is the call that I think we all need to overcome. I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity of working in this area and certainly I am very committed to continuing to do so.
UN News Centre: The General Assembly has extended your mandate until the end of 2018. What are your priorities for the next three years?
Mrs. Santos Pais: We have been happy to celebrate so many changes in legislation, in policies, in better data, in better visibility of this topic and stronger commitments, [such] as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but we need to consolidate these efforts.
Telling about the success and the factors that have helped us to move ahead is something that I see as a very strong priority, including by widening the number of countries with strong legislation, strong agendas and coordinating mechanisms, strong budgets to address this issue, and strong data to provide the evidence to do the right thing rather than be reactive.
The second thing is to work with governments in the process of implementation of the Agenda 2030. And these first years of implementation of the new global development agenda are going to set the tone for how we are going to pursue [the children’s rights agenda]. If we dilute the visibility and importance of children and the protection of children from violence, certainly it will be more difficult to bring it back. This was a key lesson from the MDG [ Millennium Development Goals] process, that [if we dilute protection of children from violence] we will compromise progress in any other goal – in education, in health, in gender equality and empowerment, in safe public spaces. Everything will be compromised because violence generates poor rule of law, lack of confidence in institutions, people feel insecure and they are going to be doing things that are not promoting inclusive and peaceful societies for all. So these two things certainly are very high on my agenda.