Unicef Pacific calls for more reporting of child violence
Unicef's Pacific representative outlines the UN agency's key focusses in the Pacifc, including tackling violence against children.
The Pacific representative for the United Nations child protection agency, Unicef, says efforts to combat violence against children are hampered by shame and denial over the issue.
Karen Allen has been with Unicef for 13 years but started her new role in the Pacific in mid-2013.
She has previously worked in such countries as Pakistan and Uganda.
During a visit to New Zealand, Ms Allen spoke to Amelia Langford about what Unicef is focussing on in the Pacific.
KAREN ALLEN: It's interesting because many of my colleagues and friends sent me emails saying 'oh congratulations, you are going to the most beautiful place on earth. You will finally get a break'. In fact I find the Pacific to be very complicated and one of the most challenging places I have ever worked.
AMELIA LANGFORD: Tell me, just give me an overview, of what challenges we are facing.
KA: First of all, it's challenging that you have many countries, many governments, so therefore many counterparts, many ministries, many NGO's, different civil society groups, also different sets of laws affecting children in every country and of course different cultures and different cultural attitudes towards children. People talk a lot about the Pacific way and there are commonalities but I am finding there are just as many differences as things in common.
AL: And some of those key issues that UNICEF is focusing on in the Pacific, what would you say those were?
KA: We're focusing on remaining high rates of maternal neo-natal and child deaths especially in three countries. We're concerned that immunisation coverage has come a long way but we seem to be stopping just a little bit short of the goal posts because we're still not at the complete coverage level that we need to have. We're also looking at strengthening early childhood education because many development partners are doing quite well as well as governments on strengthening primary, secondary education, but we know without strong school readiness children will never catch up. Their whole history of learning will be held back if they don't have a solid early childhood readiness. We're also looking at issues around water and sanitation, particularly in over congested urban areas but also in areas where fragile water lenses are drying up or getting polluted by either human pollution or because of saline penetration. And last, but not at all least, we're concerned about violence against children.
AL: Focusing on violence against children, what is UNICEF doing there to combat that?
KA: The most visible thing we're doing is working with governments on campaigns to raise awareness however we're also doing alot of things softly, softly, quietly, quietly because it's a very sensitive area especially when the violence against children gets in to the area of sexual relations with children. People don't want to talk about it. There's a sense of shame or even of denial so it's essential to take a very sensitive approach. Basically we find that some laws are outdated. This is, thank goodness, a minority of countries now, but yes there are still some countries where a child is treated as a criminal above the age of ten, or twelve or fifteen, it varies, so you don't have a juvenile justice system. At the same time and, very dangerously, you'll find that there are laws against adults having sex with girls but no such law against adults having sex with boys because there's a denial that that happens. And in other countries you have homophobic laws so you can get into a situation where, if someone reports it, the child can be arrested.
AL: Which seems absurd doesn't it?
KA: It comes out of misunderstanding and denial and a whole lot of complex factors about culture and religion and laws and so forth so it cannot be dealt with in a simplistic fashion, that's for sure. Complex problems often require complex solutions. There's also a lot of resistance to spending money to collect the information, partly again because of denial, perhaps also because of a fear of looking bad to the international world and also a defensive attitude: the outside world can't come in and tell us that we can't hit out children, we need to hit our children. The Convention on the Rights of Children, which all the countries of the Pacific are signatories to, does say that we need positive discipline, not beating and hitting. But we're trying to make sure that at least we have a code of conduct for teachers and that we don't have corporal punishment in schools. Of course there's also resistance to collecting information, even more resistance to collecting information on sex among children, but we know sexually transmitted infections are prevalent including among adolescents. We know there's teenage pregnancy so we can't deny that it's happening, so we're working with other partners on raising awareness among adolescents and including at schools among teachers, among parents. The resistance to reporting is a problem. Sometimes the father is beating the mother and then the mother turns around and beats the child. You get into a whole negative culture of hitting and beating and the last thing you think about is taking that outside the family walls. So you see it has to be a community approach and so many different duty bearers need to be sensitised and mechanisms put in place.
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