We need to make things accessible, not just child friendly, but accessible to anyone

Member Spotlight: Interview with Dr Ruth Farrugia, Director General, President's Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society

- On 21-22 October you organised your second national conference on child wellbeing. Could you explain why it focused on access to justice for vulnerable children? Is it a specific challenge faced in Malta?

Child participation within access to justice is really important for us because without access to justice no human rights can be easily accessed. It’s already difficult for adults to access their rights and it’s even more difficult for vulnerable children such as children in alternative care, asylum seekers, children who had problems with the law and children who are called into court.

The first day, the panel was composed of UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, Regina Jensdottir Director of Children’s Rights at Council of Europe, Norah Gibbons, President of Eurochild andthe International Foster Care Organisation (IFCO) that will be hosting an international conference in Malta in November 2017 and the Fundamental Rights Agency. On the second day young people told us about the problems they faced, such as for example being hosted to give evidence and having to sit next to the family they are giving evidence against or being told that they had to come back in a month time.

After the conference, we organised another event: an intergenerational dialogue on human rights where children spoke with a leading legal anthropologist, Barbara Harrell-Bond who set up the Oxford Refugee Centre. We have two very active groups, a children council (aged 7-11) and a young people Council (aged 12-18). One of the children during the debate on who is a refugee stood up and said ‘’ It’s obvious, refugees are people who don’t get rights in their own country and they have to go somewhere else’’. There are so many laws and books about it and this was put in one single sentence. This is one example of why we invest in child participation. 

-What is the main issue children currently face in Malta?

What I would say is different from what children would say. This is why our young people’s councils are so important. When they meet up they mainly talk about bullying and the environment, these are the biggest issues for them. Cyber bullying seems to be a particular problem for the 14 to 17 year old.  Following our last annual conference in 2015 we organised a round table with the cybercrime unit from the Police because children seemed to be really disturbed and anxious about it

Another issue was not having a safe place to play. Children are usually criticised for not playing outdoors. This why we started organising our President’s Secret Garden events  which focus on peace building, community engagement and rights.  We also have a regularly open mobile library.  Children told us they didn’t want any storytelling activity; they just needed the space to be able to read and stay together.  

Disability is an issue that was also underlined by them. There is an 11 years old boy in the Council with a severe physical disability who is really active and makes himself heard very clearly. For instance, he is irritated by the fact that he can’t participate as fully as he would like to because of accessibility issues. 

-What are the main projects that the President’s Foundation is working on at the moment?

We have 5 research entities each carrying out varied research on wellbeing.  For instance we are doing research on children’s relationship with teachers in schools, problematic internet  use among students, access to safe and healthy food and many others. 

Now the Foundation is organising an important meeting with Missing Children Europe on missing asylum seeking children that will be held in Malta on 26 – 27 January. Europol estimated that in 2015 10,000 asylum seeking children went missing. They were registered children so that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We want to raise awareness about this issue and find a way to make these children trust the system and avoid being trafficked. We spoke to asylum seeking children and asked them to tell us their experiences. In some of the interviews, children were scared because other children that were living with them suddenly disappeared. 

Another project is tied with the IFCO Conference on children in foster care, children who leave foster care, children who are moved from one place to another and the experience of the families, how they deal with the foster child.   

-The Maltese Presidency of the EU has just begun and will last until June 2017.  What do you hope to see happen and what would you like to achieve?

We will facilitate children’s  access to the sessions so they can ask questions regarding what is important to them. Our responsibility is that they claim the space to ask what they want and to be able to report in a child friendly way.  

We are excited about the Eurochild’s project about budgeting and see how much budget is used for children. On paper, a lot of money is spent on education because in Malta it’s completely free. So I’m curious to know how much is spent.

- What are the most useful resources and benefits from being a member of the Eurochild Network?  What would you change or improve? 

I love the fact that I can talk to people that think in the same way and I don’t feel we’re alone in this attempt to push child participation. It’s reassuring! What I would like to know more is what doesn’t work, to hear more about mistakes so that we can learn from them. I would also like to increase the communication among the members and the children. The children would love to hear from other children! Having links among the councils and associations would be wonderful!

 -After the results of the Eurochild Conference, Eurochild is currently developing a Child participation Strategy. Is there any good example of children’s active participation you could share with us?

We’re also working on a project with universities to go from village to village on a bus and talk about children’s rights and the children are excited about that!

What we think is really important is developing child friendly versions of documents that usually are used by adults as well since they are generally easier to read and to the point. We need to use money to make things accessible, not just child friendly, but accessible to anyone. 

The key in child participation is not pitching it low because children are not less intelligent that adults. Most Children don’t need colourful and silly material with a lot of drawings. We don’t need to patronise them. What we do with the Foundation is respecting children’s freedom to decide their own agenda when they set their meetings and they decide if they need external advice. We need to simply give them their right and people will finally listen to them.