Will rapid economic change reiterate or decrease the extremes that separate children? Will the children of the world’s elite continue to want for almost nothing, while the children of the poor continue to be deprived of almost everything?
Last month, global leaders signed the Sustainable Development Goals, a universal declaration that pledges to end poverty, better protect children and ensure rights are guaranteed for all — especially society’s most vulnerable. It can’t come quickly enough for the 1 billion children experiencing some form of violence every year.
We know that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys experience sexual violence during childhood. An estimated 5.5 million children are in some form of modern-day slavery, working in jobs hazardous to their health and well-being that they have little chance of escaping. We know that every year 15 million girls marry before they turn 18, and that 168 million children are classified as child laborers. There are many other areas where children suffer violence and the list of violations is, unfortunately, very lengthy.
Still, given the track record of many low- and middle-income countries and their mixed results with the Millennium Development Goals, we know that the SDGs will not be achieved by governments alone. They can only be possible with the engagement of the social stakeholders.
To reach targets aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against children, social actors must be involved. The SDGs promise to eliminate all harmful practices — such as child and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; take immediate and effective measures to eradicate the worst forms of child labor; and end any abuse, exploitation, and all forms of violence against children. This can only be done with help from civil society and community groups.
When community members learn about the effects and causes of violence against children, and then collectively design a plan to break the violence and protect the children, they become extraordinarily powerful. World Vision helps people harness the power of collective community action, by strengthening the protective environment for children and ensuring community-based child monitoring is in place. That way, governments, civil society and grass-roots community groups work together to protect children.
An example of this was when we met 14-year-old Sanjana and her elder sister from West Bengal in India, who were rescued by the Child Protection Committee. After Sanjana and her elder sister were missing for several months, the CPC decided to travel to Delhi.
“They were shocked to find that the elder girl was already married, and Sanjana was being prepared for marriage,” said one World Vision staff member.
When the grandfather and the members of the CPC met with Sanjana’s father, he refused to stop the marriage. Only when he was threatened with legal action, with the help of the local police station, was the engagement halted. The girl was rescued and brought back to her village and put back in school by the CPC.
Indeed, civil society is a sector for solution creators. While civil society is currently delivering social services to vulnerable populations, with the potential to show great impact in communities, more needs to be done.
To achieve the ambitious SDGs before 2030, an interconnected system should be put in place, and new networks of problem solvers. Governments, private sector, faith leaders, nongovernmental organizations, communities, families and children need to work together to create solutions with a view to drive change for children.
We know from past experience that civil society can have a catalyst role, creating social support to assure government’s commitment on child protection. Civil society can also help address poverty, inequity and injustice, factors that act as a breeding ground for violence against children.
Civil society has the ability to create change in environments where social norms and behaviors do not value children. Environments that view children as commodities that can be owned or exchanged in return for goods, money or livestock — as well as subjects of abuse, exploitation and other forms of violence — can be challenged. Civil society plays a critical role in helping communities raise awareness so that they can be agents of change and ensure that children have a voice.
Together, civil society and communities can provide help in preventing, supporting and enforcing child protection behaviors. Children’s safety in communities can be improved by working in a collaborative effort by civil society, government, the private sector and communities.
Goal 17 encourages governments and the private sector to form effective partnerships with CSOs. As such, we need everybody to recognize their role in the SDGs and to take action and assure every child grows up in a safe, peaceful, nurturing and enabling environment.
It is time for innovative partnerships, with the aim of protecting all children, no matter whether their country is rich or poor, whether they live in the countryside or the city, or whether their family is wealthy or not. It is time to eradicate violence against children and time to end the inequity and disparities that shape children’s future. The choice is ours to make, for millions of the world’s most vulnerable children.
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