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“Young people affected by sexual violence are seen as victims or agents of change but rarely both.” Helen Veitch, Children's Rights Consultant

Helen Veitch is a consultant on children's rights with over 20 years’ experience in advocacy, research programming and grant-making with a focus on children's participation, child sexual exploitation and children in domestic work. She is a co-founder of Children Unite and an Oak Fellow at the International Centre: researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking, at the University of Bedfordshire.

My starting point for any discussion around participation is that it is, unfortunately, a really annoying word because there are both active and passive interpretations of it and this trips many of us up. A group of children who participate in a rally and who march and shout, that's passive participation; they are taking part in something. Active participation is when they are the ones who organised the rally, decided the time, negotiated the route with the police and came up with the slogans. When I talk about participation I'm talking about active participation and, for me, the crucial thing is that children are involved in decision making. This is what we need to be looking at more closely in the sector.

I sometimes talk about the ‘pick a child, any child’ problem. Organisations who don't really understand participation think involving any child is sufficient but we need to find 'experts by experience.' Children are not old enough to be experts on many things, but anyone can be an expert on their own experience. So if experience is the key thing that we need to look for then you’re not just picking any child, you're picking a child with a particular experience that is relevant to the work you are doing. If you sit a child down and start talking to them about something they have no knowledge about, they will feel really stupid; if you're asking children about the school curriculum when they don't go to school, there is no point – they will make things up, like all of us do if we don’t know an answer. One of the key themes of my work is understanding the value of children’s participation; when it is worth involving children and when it is not. Their experience is unique and precious, and we shouldn't waste it.

When you’re looking at sexual violence there’s a real tension between protection rights and participation rights. Young people affected by sexual violence are seen as victims or agents of change but rarely both. As victims they're supposed to be well-behaved, grateful and vulnerable, they're not supposed to be angry or difficult or articulate or impassioned. But my experience of young people affected by sexual violence is that they are angry, they're angry about what's happened to them and what's happening to other people and the fact that they were silenced. They're difficult because they've experienced trauma and it takes time to let go of trauma. If victims of sexual violence aren't angry, then who is going to be? It's appropriate that they're angry.

We are also incredibly risk averse as a sector. Everything we do is under the umbrella of child protection. I've really noticed that when you look at the difference between the children's rights sector and the women's rights sector there's many survivors involved in the women's rights movement but the children's rights sector is full of professionals and its very rarely called a ‘movement’. In general, with children, protection rights are seen as more important than participation rights. Yet I've seen participatory activities improve the protection of children and have a therapeutic impact. It is quite common for children to be motivated by a desire to help others in a similar situation to themselves: "before I saw what I had been through as a weakness, a horrible part of my life. Well it’s still a horrible part but now I can use my experience for good. I've gone from the person who is coming here to ask for help for me, to someone who's coming to help other young people." (Maisy, aged 18, AYPH Be Healthy project)

The idea of children who've been affected by sexual violence being involved in participatory activities also challenges one of the key issues around sexual abuse and exploitation. There’s a whole culture of silence around victims which abusers exploit to continue abusing. Participatory activities challenge that and build the skills and confidence of young people so it's less likely that they will be abused in the future. This goes completely against the grain of what most people think, which is that it's too risky to involve children affected by sexual violence, that they'll get re-traumatised by the participatory activities. As professionals we must be mindful of trying too hard to protect young people. One young man I know who'd been sexually exploited was, later, involved in a consultation with other boys with similar experiences.Those running the activity had undertaken a risk assessment and told all the boys that they couldn't contact each other after this consultation. But this was the first time they had met other boys who'd also been sexually exploited and they really wanted to stay in touch with each other. It felt almost abusive for them to be told you can't contact each other. This young man has since been involved in another consultative project where the young people took part in the risk assessment themselves and came up with a number of risks that the adults hadn’t thought about as well as their own ‘code of conduct’.

I've been looking at how you create a movement of children on the issue of sexual violence and it's hard because the world is set up and run by adults and there has been a professionalisation of the children's rights field. Child protection in an industry but child participation is not. Our lack of confidence to truly allow children to participate has a lot to do with how we view children. We do not see them being as capable as adults. It's actually really radical to think about children as equal partners, because nobody does. Society just absolutely won’t let us think about children as equal and it's the same situation that women were in a hundred years ago. But why are children deemed incompetent just because of their age?

Helen Veitch led our Lunch and Learn seminar on the subject of Children’s Participation and Sexual Violence. You can find her slides from the seminar here and sign up for future events here.

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