Like most Americans, I watched in horror as the events unfolded last month at a shopping mall in Nairobi where dozens of people were killed by terrorists. It was an all-too-vivid reminder of the pervasive and capricious nature of violence. And as we know well, developing countries are not immune to such bloodshed.
What had particular resonance - in an all-too-personal way - was the cold-blooded slaughter of Elif Yavuz, a young, 28-year-old Dutch nurse who was pregnant and just two weeks shy of her due date. She was working in Tanzania and came for the better health facilities and safer environment of Nairobi to give birth. According to reports, she died in her partner's arms.
Hearing the story of her slaying brought back vivid memories of my first pregnancy 28 years ago this month in that same corner of the world. I was working with refugees in Somalia, and a few weeks before my due date, and for the same reasons as Elif, I traveled to Nairobi to deliver. As I assume Elif did, I spent my days walking around the city, shopping for my soon-to-be-born baby and imaging what my life would be lie with a baby in it.
The point is, I could see myself in Elif, and the parallel of my own life to hers - both of us called to serve in a region far from home - has delivered an unexpected jolt to my perspective. What emerges most is a sense of immense gratitude, of course. I delivered a healthy 9 lb. baby boy, but Elif's unborn child never had a chance at life. Even more than that, however, I was struck with an invigorated commitment to reducing violence, especially violence directed toward children.
The timing for such a focus is ripe. With the expiration of the first set of Millennial Development Goals in 2015, world leaders are working to set new priorities for the decade ahead, and one area of need that has been overlooked for too long is the widespread violence and exploitation directed at children.
Children themselves are raising their voices to advocate action in this area. ChildFund Alliance recently undertook an unprecedented research project in which it conducted more than 50 focus groups of children ages 10-to-12 in 41 countries around the world. In all, more than 1,300 children shared their unvarnished perspective on the issue of violence. What emerged from those groups was a surprisingly consistent set of views - across all regions of the world.
To begin with, children everywhere identified the same kinds of violence that they are regularly subjected to. Most mentioned were sexual violence, exploitive child labor and harsh and humiliating forms of physical punishment. Some children cited the prevalence of forced child marriages while many others said that their teachers regularly beat students severely, sometimes with fatal consequences. There also were regional differences. Children in Africa objected to harmful traditional practices (such as genital cutting) while those in the Americas pointed to bullying as a particular problem.
The children participating in the focus groups not only discussed the nature of the problem, they also expressed ideas for solutions. They called on world leaders to create new legislation that protects children against violence and urged governments to back up those laws with strong elements of both enforcement and prosecution. They also proposed the funding of programs to educate parents and other adults about the adverse consequences associated with violence against children. And children want to be part of the conversation and are eager to participate in discussion groups and community forums on issues related to violence and exploitation. Their wisdom is well beyond their years.
These focus group findings provide a qualitative foundation on which action can be built. ChildFund Alliance, of which ChildFund International is a member, has initiated a global campaign called "Free from Violence." Its goal is to not only raise awareness at all levels about this issue but also to advocate to governments that the prevention of violence and exploitation of children be included as one of the development priorities in the post-2015 agenda.
The world's headlines provide regular reminders of the dangerous and violent world we live in. But violence against children is all too often hidden from view. Out of sight, out of mind is not an acceptable path forward. All of us can work to amplify the voices of these children and put their pleas for action atop our new set of priorities. We have asked them the right questions. We also hold the answers.