Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Ending violence is not as simple as some people (and some famous-journalists-from-the-New-York-Times) might think. It’s not as easy as telling some personal stories of child victims of violence and getting people in the “West” to pay attention and care.  Ending violence against children will involve some very deep and profound cultural shifts that need to be owned by local communities who have decided that they want to end violence. Violence needs to be addressed on multiple fronts over time, taking into consideration very localized contexts that frame violence against children as an accepted norm, and that allow those who commit violent acts against children to continue with impunity.  Violence is not something in isolation of other currents running through a society, and much (most? all?) violence is rooted in unequal power relationships.
Next Sunday, I’m heading to Benin for a couple weeks to work on a project aimed at ending violence against children.  I’ll be training colleagues from Benin and Togo on setting up an SMS based system of collecting incident reports on violence against children and mapping the incidents out. This information should allow for better tracking and understanding of what kind of violence is taking place, and for more informed thinking about sustainable solutions/responses to the violence.
My colleagues and I will then train youth in 2 communities in Benin to use the system.  We’ll also train youth to do some basic audio and video testimonies. Our Togo colleagues will return to Togo to replicate the training with some youth groups there.  This is all part of a larger Violence against Children (VAC) project that has been ongoing since 2008.
One thing that I like about this VAC project is that it trains and engages children and youth themselves as advocates and agents of change to end violence, together with adult community allies.  As those who are experiencing this violence, it’s vital that children and youth are prepared and able to take part in stopping the cycle – it’s in their own best interest.  They also need a critical mass of people locally who are aware of the negative impacts of violence, and a system that can apprehend and mete out consequences for those who commit acts of violence.
After its 4 year running period, the VAC project will have trained some 200 children and youth on the causes, manifestations and consequences of violence; ways to communicate effectively with different audiences to get the message of stopping violence across; the use of cartoons, comics, social media, radio and television to talk about issues of violence; and how to respectfully yet confidently lead intergenerational dialogue around the issue.  After my 2 weeks in Benin, the youth, project staff and other participating community adults will (I hope!) be able to use mobile phones to collect information, pictures, videos and audio testimonies about violence in their communities to share locally, nationally and globally to speak to publics and decision makers.
As part of the preparation for the upcoming workshop, I’ve been reading through some reports and documentation about the project.  One report stated that all children participating thus far in the project have said that there has been a concrete reduction of violence in their lives. They have consciously broken the cycle of violence themselves and have been able to talk to their families and peers, who now exercise less violence against them.  Most of the youth in the participating groups have themselves been victims of violence, sometimes severe, at home on a regular basis.
The pain, the marks on my skin, swelling and wounds are the consequences of violence against me…I lose my composure and all ability to complete a task. Then there’s also the doubt, fear, stress, not wanting to talk about it and shyness. –  female participant, Togo

They in turn they were often also violent towards their siblings and their peers.  Participating in the project has strengthened their “be the change you want to see” mentality around violence.
“The knowledge I have gained from the project has helped me put an end to the violence that I used to carry out against my sisters, brothers, and sometimes other children. My parents have also changed – they are no longer violent towards me.” female participant, Togo

In addition to the personal changes at the level of the participants, the VAC project has built a civil society of youth who engage politically with their peers, families, schools and communities around issues of violence.  The youth have also made violence against children part of the public agenda by partnering with media sources who feed their media into mainstream channels.
Participants are fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children by educating other children and youth about the UNVAC study and how violence compromises their rights. They’ve been able to create alliances between youth and adults to advance their cause and youth have been able to share their experiences and opinions with high-level policy makers, including government officials and the UN Special Representative on Violence against Children.
This project is a great example of how engaging with young people can begin to offer solutions to very complex problems, and how looking at youth, and at people in general, as participants and stakeholders and subjects of rights rather than victims, or beneficiaries, or objects of pity can have much better and more sustainable results.
The United Nations Violence against Children Study examined the violence that children around the world experience on a daily basis and documented children’s own experiences of violence in their homes, school, communities, workplace and institutions. A Child Friendly Version of the report is also available.

The VAC project is co-implemented by Plan and Save the Children in West Africa and takes place over 4 years (2008-2011) in seven countries: Togo, Ghana, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia in partnership with Curious Minds (Ghana), Child Protection Alliance of Gambia, youth and children’s clubs in all these countries, the African Movement for Working Children and Youth, and Planet Jeunes (a popular magazine for youth in West Africa).   Through the project’s work with children, youth, parents and communities, the achievements of the VAC project to combat violence against children are directly helping to realize the UN VAC Study’s recommendations. Several action plans developed by children and youth seek the support and commitment of the UN Special Representative on Violence against Children to continue lobbying governments for change. Young people engaged in the West African VAC project are a valuable resource for the UN Special Representative, ready to support her work in Africa and beyond.

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