It was a lunch break in year 10. My friend said she wanted to share something with me, but first I had to promise I would never tell anyone else.
She shared that she had been sexually abused by a relative for seven years.
I kept my promise and never told. And so, still a child myself, I became part of the shame and silence which hides the violence against children happening all around us. Today, I am breaking my promise and telling the secrets that need to be told. I’m speaking up along with other young people around the world so children can stop carrying the guilt, grief and stigma of abuse.
Today, 18 young and brave survivors of violence from around the world share their stories in a letter to world leaders: calling on them to end the widespread abuse that affects millions of children. Drawing on the experiences of violent conflict in South Sudan, sexual abuse in Iceland and child trafficking in Pakistan, the powerful letter highlights an epidemic of violence facing children in every part of the world.
Two young women from Australia, Beth, and adolescent, and Parwana, 20, have shared their experiences with UNICEF Australia as part of this letter. Beth was sexually assaulted in her home by someone her family knew.
Violence too has shaped Parwana’s life, though her experience of it is different, yet not unlike the experiences we see children this week facing in the Middle East and across Europe. Her story started in Afghanistan and ended in Australia four years ago.
“I remember always sleeping in fear. Always being people who have to escape or run away to survive. That’s made us be refugees in our own country, then refugees in Pakistan. Then after so many struggles, we made it to a place we can say is peaceful,” Parwana says of her journey, though she adds she never understood what made her and her family a target.
“A child doesn’t understand the difference between religions and nations. My uncle was killed just because he was a Hazara. We didn’t understand why this was happening to us and our families. When you’re born in a country, you think that country is your own because your mum and dad are from that country. It’s really hard to understand that other people in that country want to attack and kill you.”
Beth and Parwana remind us violence against children is a real and lived experience, and that it is wrong. We have the power to end it. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states every child has the right to be protected from all forms of violence, abuse and neglect. We are all responsible for ensuring children can grow up safe and free from violence, but governments must take leadership in keeping children free from violence.
At the end of this month, world leaders will meet together to formally endorse the Sustainable Development Goals. These goals present a historic opportunity to change the situations so many children endure, but only if we focus on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and put their safety, education and health at the heart of the agenda.
The inclusion of Sustainable Development Goal number 16 – to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies – shows there is a will to end violence in all its forms. We need our leaders to be strong on this issue.
The experiences of Beth, Parwana and 16 other young people have been shared with our leaders in a letter to remind them of the scale and seriousness of violence against children. Almost one in 10 girls under the age of 20 experience sexual abuse and an estimated 230 million children live in countries affected by armed conflict. Almost one billion children worldwide are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis.
Every five minutes a child dies as a result of violence. The symptoms of violence surface daily in our communities. A boy locked in a cage in a Canberra school because he has autism. Luke Batty, killed by his father at a cricket training session on a weeknight. A Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing tens of thousands of experiences of sexual abuse from people all across Australia. These are just the things that we see. The majority of violence is not visible. It happens in private spaces, out of sight.
Children in Australian communities have lived through conflict, and even though they are safe now, they carry the stress of loved ones still living in danger in conflict zones.
Children notice when a family member comes home drunk and volatile. Children have been beaten up on their own streets. Children self-harm because they can’t find the support they need to cope with stress and anxiety. Children endure relentless cyber-bullying, which follows them out of their school and into their homes, making no place safe. Children are often the first ones to see or know when another child is experiencing violence, but are often the last to be listened to or believed.
I know this because I’ve heard from children first-hand as part of a conversation with children to find out what matters to them. We cannot minimise the urgency of this situation. We need to take the experiences of children seriously, listen to what they are saying to us and act swiftly before another five minutes passes and another child is lost to violence.
I cannot presume to ever understand the experiences of children I have heard and read. However I can be an ally and use my time, voice and skills to act on what they ask for. You can too.
Article provided and written by UNICEF. If you would like to make a donation, please head to unicef.org.au/donate.