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Interview: Why is it important to stand by children’s rights

20 November 2023

In the European Union, around 20% of the population are children1. Children have special needs and require assistance and protection. That is why they also have a set of rights to meet their unique needs, which they are entitled to meet at every stage of their development.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international agreement on the human rights of children, was adopted in 1989 and entered into force in 1990. This human rights treaty ratified by 196 states lists children’s rights and how governments and organisations work to ensure all children can enjoy their rights without discrimination of any kind. Defence for Children International was one of the organisations that actively contributed to the drafting of this document.

Our Communications Manager, Marta Azevedo Silva, sat down with Adèle Dachy, in charge of Communications, at Defence for Children International Belgium, to understand the crucial role of the organisation in protecting and advancing children’s rights in different areas of intervention, from migration to child protection and justice.

1- How has your organisation contributed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Defence for Children International (DCI) is a global movement dedicated to the protection and progression of children’s rights. In other words: to ensure that the rights recognised by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child are known and enforced in an effective way.

Founded in 1991, DCI Belgium is the Belgian chapter of the movement. We work across Belgium to implement various pilot projects, research and advocacy activities in situations where children’s rights might be at risk of being violated. For example, DCI Belgium has long campaigned for a zero-tolerance policy towards children being held in detention in the context of migration and works with the youth justice system and youth support services to ensure young people have their rights to information, legal representation and participation are at all times protected. Youth participation is also at the heart of everything we do: we trust children and young people to know about the issues affecting them and equip them with the tools and space to have their voices heard.

Eventually, everything that we do aims to support our vision: a world where children are able to enjoy their fundamental rights with dignity, in a fair and responsible society.

2- How has your organisation contributed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Nigel Cantwell founded the NGO Defence for Children International in 1979 and coordinated the inputs of the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child throughout the drafting of that treaty.
DCI Belgium participates in the drafting of the alternative report for the periodic review of Belgium, has regular contacts with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and uses the Committee’s general observations and other publications in its daily work. At Belgian level, DCI participates in the mechanisms for monitoring and implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

3- From your research and expertise, what are the most significant challenges for children and young people, and do you believe enough is being done to tackle these problems ?

In all the projects we set up, we pay particular attention to the protection, involvement and participation of the children most affected by the challenges we work on. Children and young people are involved at various stages: design, support, implementation, monitoring, advocacy, communication, training, etc. Here are some of the main challenges we work on in Belgium:

  • Justice systems too often still treat children like adults
    Children come into contact with the law in a variety of contexts: because they need protection, are victims or witnesses, are suspected of having committed an offence, in some cases when their parents separate, or for reasons linked to their right to stay in the country. In these situations, children are often thrust into a world of adults who sometimes don’t understand them well enough. It is a justice system they cannot always count on to ensure that their rights are effective, not always able to protect them, or even a source of secondary victimization.>
  • Combating violence in education
    All children have the right to be protected from physical, psychological and sexual abuse and neglect. This also ensures that their education can take place without harming their healthy development. Currently, children are still subjects to many forms of violence because they are perceived as having educational virtues and are therefore widely accepted. These are known as “ordinary educational violence.”
  • Sexual exploitation of minors
    The sexual exploitation of minors was declared a global emergency by the United Nations in 2022 (OHCHR, 2022). In fact, the majority of victims of human trafficking are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Combating human exploitation and trafficking must be a top priority for all levels of government. The Belgian federal government agreement currently states that “combating the sexual exploitation of children offline and online is a top priority.”
  • Detention of children in migration
    Detaining children for reasons of migration is an inhumane practice and contrary to international law on the rights of the child, which establishes that such a measure is never in
    the child’s best interests. Belgium must prohibit the detention of children for reasons of migration, in order to protect them from its serious consequences… Because a child in migration is first and foremost a child, and a child should not be locked up.
  • Preventing violence against children and young people in migration in Belgium
    The Belgian state is failing more than ever in its duty to protect migrant children, some of whom have even been forced to sleep on the streets. When we take the time to listen to them, children speak out about the violence they experience when they arrive in Belgium, sometimes very young, alone and already traumatized by their exile.

    To know more about the main challenges we tackle and testimonies of children (in French):

4- Regarding children’s rights within Europe, do you think when designing EU and national policies, children’s rights are considered and their needs are listened to?

The EU has been given an increasing amount of attention to children’s rights in recent years, which is really encouraging and welcomed. For example, the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the recently launched Child participation platform are great initiatives to put the experiences and voices of children at the heart of policy-making. On a day-to-day basis however, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve meaningful participation of young people as equals. Too often, children are still seen as passive victims in need of protection, and not enough as active stakeholders to develop and monitor these rights.
Children effectively have the capacity to express themselves about their rights and about the problems they experience. They can be agents of change and often come up with very creative solutions.
When talking about child participation, we have to insist on the importance putting children and young people at the center and giving them the right space, the tools and the time to participate properly. We need to be enablers in supporting children to bring their opinions into EU decision-making process.

5- You are one of the awarded projects of ECAS Grant-making to its members in the EU with Elevating Children’s Voices and Vote (ECVV) project that, ahead of the European Parliament elections, aims to increase child rights awareness and foster child participation in political decision-making.
Could you explain more about this project and how you will implement it across the EU?

Our project sets out to create safe and inclusive spaces for children and young people who are typically least likely to be consulted or asked to contribute their advice and opinion about the situations they may be going through: for example, young people with a migrant background often face prejudice and stereotype whilst the voices of young people in the justice system may be dismissed or overlooked during and after justice proceedings.

In an important political year – preceding both national elections in Belgium as well as the first EU elections in which young people aged 16 will be allowed to vote – our ECVV project challenges policy-makers, the general public, and young people themselves, to place young voices at the centre of public debate through a series of tailored workshops and youth-led communication presenting young people’s recommendations and visions of change.

In light of the elections 2024 we have developed a memorandum with our main positions and actions for the government regarding the implementing and respect of children rights. In order to increase the involvement of children we have published a more child friendly version of this memorandum on our website:

Regarding the European elections themselves, where children will be able to express their vote for the first time, we often refer to actions by Forum des jeunes, which mainly focuses on this and proposes different actions such as a manual explaining their rights and different topics as well as different activities.2

6- Finally, what was your motivation to apply for the ECAS Grant-making to its members? How do you see our future collaboration?

DCI Belgium has long been working with children and young people to encourage and promote their right to participation, and supporting young people all the way to the spheres of policy-makers and decision-making is more recent. We share ECAS’ values and vision of promoting and protecting a vibrant democracy life and the rule of law in the EU, and believe firmly that youth participation is a key ingredient to achieve this.
We were excited to apply to ECAS grant-making opportunity and have the chance to pitch our project that attempts not only to make this a reality for young people who are not often be given a say in political affairs and decisions affecting them, but also help change dominant mindsets and narratives that too often downplay the important contribution that young people bring to the table. We hope to be able to continue working with ECAS and its members – both in terms of bring young people’s voices to the forefront of EU democratic life and through connecting with other European members – for example through our Child-friendly Justice European Network: