In the press
UNV promotes rights and opportunities for children and youth worldwide
by Richard Nyberg
11 December 1999
Bonn, Germany: Concerned individuals, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations around the world have just commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) -- the most rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, the convention has been approved by a record 191 nations.
The United Nations Volunteers programme (UNV) is committed to children and their rights, having focused on the needs of young people for nearly three decades.
A large portion of UNV's work with children has been carried out in cooperation with the chief CRC advocate -- UNICEF. More than 800 UN Volunteers (UNVs) have worked with UNICEF since UN Volunteers started development work in the field in 1971. During 1999, some 70 UN Volunteers worked on UNICEF programmes around the world. Some of these are taking part in the first joint UNICEF-UNV subregional project in Central America and the Dominican Republic to help government agencies and non-governmental organizations implement CRC.
A UNV project manager working out of the UNICEF Regional Office in Costa Rica is coordinating a network of 21 UN Volunteers to provide support to Central American countries in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The project seeks to strengthen the capacities of governmental agencies and non-governmental institutions caring for children at risk, especially those affected by labour exploitation, sexual abuse and mistreatment.
International UN Volunteer Carmen Klinger of Ecuador has seen the effects of child abuse and neglect first hand. Like others in the joint project, she takes her message to juvenile detention centres, meeting hardened criminals from notorious Mara gangs. Even in schools and other settings where she meets children and teenagers, the message she hears is the same.
"Children don't trust anyone anymore," she says. "There is a circle of silence - no one wants to speak about what everyone knows," says the UN Volunteer, who has been conducting workshops on children's rights in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, since April 1999. Teachers, parents and other adults "simply don't want to hear" about violence and abuse directed towards children. Ms. Klinger was caught off guard when a 10-year-old girl -- asked to describe her rights as a child -- related how her mother plainly told her she had "a right to work".
Among her many activities as a Spanish UNV in El Salvador, Belén Torres organizes theatrical presentations on children's rights. In and around the capital San Salvador she and her co-workers held presentations to commemorate the Convention on Rights of the Child at a law school, a social services centre for single mothers aged 10 to 16 and a detention centre for teenage boy criminals. "Through my work I try to show these young people that there is always an option to the choices in life they have made so far," says Ms. Torres.
Under the joint project, which is executed by UNV, one international and two national UN Volunteers serve in each of the following countries: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The project targets political and legislative decision makers to help implement aspects of the CRC in national laws. Volunteers assist government welfare institutions and provide training to lawyers, judges and government officials. The UNVs also provide advice on how to draft new legislation in favour of children and their rights.
Through this project, UNICEF and UNV are working together to promote cooperation between countries in the thematic areas of education, health and youth, says Heimo Lakkonen, Regional UNICEF Representative based in Costa Rica. "We often talk about South-South cooperation but here is something in practice," he notes, adding that there are widespread violations of human rights in the countries of the region, especially sexual abuse of children. In addition, many children drop out of school at an early age.
Another project UNV has launched with UNICEF is the Child Friendly Cities Initiative in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Child Friendly Cities is a global initiative of UNICEF being introduced in a number of countries. It is based on an integrated approach to urban development, where all local stakeholders are encouraged to form partnerships to defend the rights and address the needs of local urban children, especially the poor and most disadvantaged. UNV specialists have started to train staff of governmental agencies and reinforce contacts between local governments and communities.
Individual UNVs working outside the well-established UNV-UNICEF framework are likewise making a difference. One is Koen Van Acoleyen. He arrived in Vietnam determined to devote a year to working with street children by volunteering for a local organization. He couldn't find the right organization -- so he started his own. Along with partner Sebastien Barmaz, Koen set up Education for Development in cooperation with the Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation in 1996. Since then, Mr. Van Acoleyen, a 23-year-old from Bruges in Belgium, has become a United Nations Volunteer, fully funded by the Belgium Government.
Volunteers with Education for Development reach out to children on the street and provide information about existing services available to them; introduce older children to potential employers and provide sponsorships for initial training and apprenticeships; and teach English and computer skills. Mr. Van Acoleyen and his fellow volunteers have also set up "Street Vision", a project which gives children the chance to study photography with their work displayed in exhibitions in Vietnam and abroad. And street children can take in classes in drama, theatre and circus activities which lead to special performances to raise money and awareness, as well as increasing the children's confidence.
"By education we mean creating more opportunities for children and guiding them in taking advantage of those opportunities so that they can develop themselves to their full potential," says Mr. Van Acoleyen. There are an estimated 10,000 street children in Ho Chi Minh City. Education for Development has implemented its projects with Vietnamese partners and volunteers from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Canada and France.
"Koen and his colleagues are making a difference for the children by giving them the hope and the skills to secure a better future," says UNV Executive Coordinator Sharon Capeling-Alakija, who recently visited the project.
Something similar is happening on the other side of the world, in Ecuador, where Peter Claesson of Sweden works as a "double" volunteer. His official title as a UN Volunteer is Assistant to the UN Resident Coordinator, but his spare time is devoted to an ambitious initiative to help street children and other disadvantaged young people. Mr. Claesson and his wife Sharon set up the "Morning Star Foundation" about two years ago to build confidence in young people. The non-governmental organization (NGO) works to rehabilitate youth prisoners, motivate and teach orphans and set up small businesses.
One of the foundation's projects is the "Caravan of Joy," which seeks to provide creative recreational and educational opportunities--and plain fun--to boys and girls living on the streets or in detention centres. "The idea is to take these children out of their oppressive daily environment and take them on nature excursions to parks, natural reserves, and volcanoes to encourage positive and constructive attitudes," he notes. A colourful "Bus of Joy" transports the children on their trips. Morning Star Foundation has also started a musical group in Guerrero prison, in addition to organizing theatre, art, handicrafts and bakery workshops. The NGO has trained about 40 girls who have committed crimes, teaching them skills in first aid, basic nursing and art. Mr. Claesson has also worked with children and youth parliaments, involving young people in decision-making within municipalities.
UNV is also helping teenagers, many of whom must face challenges of unemployment, HIV/AIDS, civil strife and poverty. In Ethiopia, an NGO called Ethio-Swedish Children and Youth Rehabilitation and Preventative Organization (ESCYRPO) seeks to rehabilitate street boys and girls by training them on how to make marketable products out of bamboo. These young people live in the streets as a result of broken homes, death of parents, unemployment or disabilities. UNV is supporting the NGO with the services of field worker Asamoa Frederick Apea of Ghana who trains young people drawn from the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa.
By the end of the one-year training, participants have the opportunity to organize themselves into cooperatives. The project assists them with a start-up package of basic materials and tools. Local authorities also provide the trainees -- about 70 per cent of them girls -- with workshops in their localities where they start producing and selling bamboo items.
Belgian UNV Peter De Lannoy is also after positive change in the lives of young people in Brazil. As coordinator of youth projects in Paracatu since mid-May, Mr. De Lannoy works through the AABB Comunidade Programme which organizes complementary education for deprived, poor children age seven to 16. His main task is to help carry out youth and education projects developed by the Prefecture of Paracatu and the executing NGO, Fundação Conscienciarte, which supports the rights and needs of children and adolescents of low-income families.
"The voluntary spirit in Paracatu is inspired by the local mayor who himself is the most important volunteer, and certainly my presence as a United Nations Volunteer played a role because people make you an example of voluntary action and are impressed that you come from so far away to help them," he says. "So even if I am relatively new here, the simple fact of the UNV presence in a small locality as Paracatu has major impact."
His project supervisor, Lucivaldo Paz de Lira, agrees. "The work of the UNV Peter De Lannoy has had a positive impact within the local community. His work within diverse youth programmes has facilitated a wide range of projects rendering possible a mobilization of young people, the recapturing of fundamental values, human development and the increase of self-esteem."
With reporting by Andrew Smith in Central America and UNDP Public Information Officer Carol Haffke in Vietnam.
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