On 14 March 2023, the Global Justice Academy hosted the Ruth Adler Human Rights Lecture by Ms Mama Fatima Singhateh, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children. Focussed on the importance of child participation, she talked about her functions as Special Rapporteur, the human rights law regulating the principle of participation, the importance of applying this principle and the challenges and opportunities it faces. The connection between Ms Singhateh’s work as Special Rapporteur and focus on children’s participation is highly relevant here in Scotland in light of the role of child participation envisioned in the pending UNCRC Incorporation legislation and the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s most recent Concluding Observations on the UK’s implementation of the UNCRC.
The Special Rapporteur began by explaining her functions: In annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly on thematic studies, she addresses thematic issues such as the sexual exploitation of children online, sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism, including in the context of major sports events; the sale and sexual exploitation of children through prostitution and child trafficking; and sale of children for illegal adoption, transfer of organs, child marriage and forced labour. Furthermore, she analyses the root causes of the sale and sexual exploitation of children, identifies new patterns of the phenomena, exchanges good practices to combat this scourge, promote measures to prevent it, and make recommendations for the rehabilitation of child victims and survivors of sale and sexual exploitation, primarily targeted towards Governments, UN bodies, the business sector and non-governmental organisations. In addition to the annual reports, the Special Rapporteur undertakes country visits, sends out communications to States and other stakeholders on individual cases of reported violations and concerns of a broader nature, engages in awareness-raising and advocacy to promote and protect children’s rights, provides advice for technical cooperation, and contributes to the development of international human rights standard. In exercising these functions, the Special Rapporteur prioritises access to child-friendly spaces. Furthermore, she dialogues with children and hears their thoughts on the issues her mandate addresses.
Then, the Special Rapporteur turned to the issue of child participation and the human rights law regulating the topic. Children’s participation is a principle emanating from Article 12 of the UNCRC on the right to be heard. Even though the UNCRC does not expressly use the term’ child participation’, she affirmed that ‘the term has evolved and is now widely used to describe ongoing processes, which include information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes.’ The Special Rapporteur also referred to the UNCRC, in general terms, as the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. She recognised that children’s lives had been transformed by the UNCRC but affirmed that ‘there is, however, more work to be done to better promote and protect the rights of all children’. Finally, she made a particular reference to the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill: While celebrating Scotland’s bold step in fully incorporating the UNCRC into Scottish legislation, she noted that the Scottish government must ensure that it follows through by reintroducing revised legislation so that effective implementation can begin.
When referring to the importance and application of child participation, the Special Rapporteur reminded the audience of the extent of article 12 of the UNCRC: ‘Children have a right to participate in any decision-making process affecting them as well as influence decisions taken on their behalf’. She affirmed that participation helps children develop confidence in their worldviews and value. Additionally, she recalled practical approaches that have created positive changes in ways of working with children, such as using child-friendly spaces and forums and including them in public policy development and monitoring.
A concrete example helped the audience to clearly understand Ms. Singhateh’s argument. The case was about role that children participation played in work carried out by an NGO against female genital mutilation (FGM). She explained that this secret practice was part of an initiation rite in a particular country. From focus groups with girls between 12 to 18 years old, the NGO learned about FMG and the rejection and embarrassment that it caused among them. With the active involvement of children, the NGO proposed restructuring the rite towards an ‘initiation without mutilation’. This turned into a successful campaign that produced a change in the places where it intervened and that was replicated in other communities. The lesson the Special Rapporteur takes from this example is ‘that deliberate and strategic actions to facilitate and create a conducive environment for children to participate in decisions about their lives can make a great difference in how the world perceives, protect, and promote their rights’.
In the last part of her lecture, the Special Rapporteur addressed the challenges and opportunities to child participation. By taking the audience through real-life stories she learned from survivors during her country visits, she highlighted the importance of raising awareness of the different manifestations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. She also referred to the government’s responsibility to design child protection policies that provide education and awareness raising, as well as ensure children have access to professionals where they can speak freely on any issue happening to them at home. In addition, she highlighted the need to provide professionals with skills and tools to effectively communicate with children, especially victims and survivors who have suffered abuse.
The Special Rapporteur also recommended involving children as trainers and facilitators of child participation and explained how they could participate at international-level gatherings designed for children and adults. Ms Singhateh concluded her lecture by ’emphasising the need to provide children with the opportunity to be heard, influence decision-making and achieve change’.
In line with the practical approach that Ms Singhateh gives to her mandate, she also accompanied the director of the GJA, Dr Kasey McCall-Smith, to a session of the human rights clinic. Students working on issues relating to the prohibition against torture and child rights budgeting were able to share their work with her and receive her questions and comments.
Ms Singhateh’s mandate as Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children was extended for another three years. We look forward to reading more about her innovative efforts on enhancing children participation in her endeavours on promoting and advancing their human rights.
This post was written by Valentina Rioseco Vallejos. Valentina is a Chilean lawyer who holds an LLM in Human Rights from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently studying a PhD in Law, focused on incorporating a human rights approach to irregular migration. Valentina is a Research Assistant for the Global Justice Academy.