Young human rights defenders speaking out at the United Nations

Mellicentia and Himanshu. She is from Sierra Leone, he from India. They are both child rights defenders. Mellicentia is 17 years old and has already performed at a variety of events across Sierra Leone to lobby and advocate for girls rights. Himanshu is 15 years old and works within his community towards protecting children against sexual exploitation. Today they are both participating at the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, to share more on their work.

During this years’ Day of General Discussion, held biannually, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child focuses on children as human rights defenders. The Girls Advocacy-Programme and the Down to Zero-Programme give children in Sierra Leone and India the chance to share their stories.

Defending girls’ rights despite threats

Mellicentia has been involved in the Action for Youth and Children-Network as of 2014 and is currently a member of the Girls Advocacy Group. It is not easy to make your voice heard in a community where women and girls are vulnerable and poverty is widespread. Unfortunately, Mellicentia has received numerous threats already. However, she continues her journey and represents the community. The teenager is taken seriously and into account as a dialogue partner by parliament and media on subjects such as teenage pregnancies and access to education. Today is the first time Mellicentia speaks outside Sierra Leone about her work, first in Geneva. Next week, she will speak in Amsterdam about her fight against child marriages.

Combating sexual exploitation online

Himanshu joined a Child Rights Club in India a year ago. After a few meetings, he was convinced: this is a place where you can learn and grow together. To increase safety for children, Himanshu and the children of the Children’s Club filed a petition with the local government for a safe and dedicated playground for children. Otherwise children roam around and become vulnerable to different sorts of risks, including sexual exploitation. They also convinced the local government to install street lights. Himanshu and his group identified protection issues online, amongst their peers. As a club, they have developed a document with ten points to build awareness on online safety amongst children, which they spread wherever they can.

Challenges for a young human right defender

The UN would like to devote extra attention to children like Himanshu and Mellicentia, because these children are often under pressure. It is not easy to defend  human rights as a minor. They are inherently more dependent on adults. This makes it more difficult to move freely, to travel around and to gain access to information. Establishing legal entities or joining groups that stand up for human rights or even hire a lawyer independently is often not a possibility for children. Children need to make great efforts to be heard and taken seriously and to be involved in adult discussions.

Yet there are many examples of powerful children who are successfully lobbying, such as Mellicentia and Himanshu. However, the famous Malala Yusufzai and Abraham Keita are great examples as well. Abraham Keita was the 2015 Children’s Rights Peace Prize Winner and will be officially opening the Day of General Discussion, addressing all child human rights defenders.

Day of General Discussion

The aim of the Day of General Discussion is to improve understanding of the content and consequences of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In addition to children, the UN Committee also invited representatives of governments, non-governmental organisations, human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, industry and individual experts to participate in the discussion.

Girls Advocacy Alliance

The Girls Advocacy Alliance is a collaboration between Defence for Children-ECPAT, Plan Nederland and Terre des Hommes ,in partnership with and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Girls Advocacy Alliance focuses on eradicating violence against girls and young women and is committed to improving the (economic) position of girls and young women through lobbying and policy influencing. Defence for Children - ECPAT implements the programme in Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Down to Zero

The 'Down to Zero' – Alliance is a collaboration between Defence for Children – ECPAT, Terre des Hommes, Plan Nederland, Free a Girl and ICCO. The aim is to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation in eleven countries in Asia and Latin America and empower children. Down to Zero a strategic partnership with and supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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