We need an EU Commissioner for Children to protect the European dream ǀ View

Children are our most prized asset, yet around the world they still face poverty, trafficking, exploitation, bullying and discrimination even though the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified of any of the human rights treaties.

Passed by the UN General Assembly 30 years ago at a time of political unrest, this convention was geared to protect children and allow them to have a bigger say in shaping their future.

It has led to legislation that has dramatically improved children’s lives, but despite the advances and commitments made, it has been all too easy for governments to trample on their rights and drown out their voices.

As President of Eurochild, a children’s rights advocacy network with 176 members in 34 countries, I believe 2019 is going to be a challenging year, and as we mark the 30th anniversary from the UNCRC, we all need to look within and examine the failings between the aspiration and realisation of these rights.

One in four children are at risk of poverty in the EU. Social protection systems are too weak to support families and children in need. There are too many children who go missing or are not recognised by the State, while structural inequalities have locked children and families into a cycle of disadvantage.

Eurochild is focused on putting children at the heart of Europe, and as the EU gears up for a new European Commission, the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society (MFWS), which I chair, joins Eurochild in its call for a job worth fighting for – a Commissioner for Children.

We need a Commissioner for Children because children and young people need to have a proper voice and have visibility at this crucial level where the policies and legislation that affects them and their future are being drafted.

Eurochild has rolled out a petition to gather signatures supporting this new role in the European Commission’s next mandate as we believe this is the only way the EU can prioritise the fight to combat the many challenges children face.

While there is a Commissioner for Fisheries, for instance, children remain without their very own representative at an EU level. And, although the EU recognised children’s rights in 2009, 10 years on, there is no single authority in the Union with the responsibility of child-proofing EU policies to enforce this.

During my time as Family and Social Solidarity Minister and as President of Malta, child participation has always been at the centre of my endeavours, and I hope this really takes off on a pan-European level to bring greater attention to the voices of children.

Children have a lot to say when given the safe space to share their thoughts. And I am thankful to the Speaker of the Maltese House of Representatives, Anglu Farrugia, who recently gave the Children’s and Young Person’s Council within the MFWS the opportunity to have the first discussion between children and our newly-elected MEPs in parliament.

By acceding to our request, the Speaker gave space for children to have their voice heard, as he recognised that if we are to really safeguard children, we have to ensure the rights enshrined in the convention are implemented.

I was also appreciative to see five of our six elected MEPs who attended — Alex Agius Saliba, Josianne Cutajar, Miriam Dalli, Roberta Metsola, and Alfred Sant — so receptive to the children.

Listening to children appealing to MEPs to protect our planet for future years, I was touched by their clarity on so many issues that affect them directly. What they kept repeating was their plea for authorities to safeguard trees and their environment having watched helplessly as construction took over their spaces to play and dust choked the air they breathe.

They discussed the unfairness of the gender pay gap, the importance of paying teachers well so that they would be happy teaching them, bullying, the advantages and threats of social media, the stress of exams and mental health, among others.

I invite our MEPs to push forward our children’s voices on a European platform. If we truly want them to move forward and be active citizens, they need the space to speak.

I cannot repeat this often enough. Too often children are being sidelined; they are not deemed important to politicians because they don’t have a vote. If we want to ensure the future of the European project, we need to invest in children now. We are only the caretakers of this planet; they are our leaders of tomorrow.

Thirty years on from the creation of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, these rights are still not being enjoyed by children. Let’s make this a meaningful year.

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President Emeritus of Malta, is Eurochild President and chair of the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

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