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‘We need to talk’ – UN side-event hears moving testimony from Olympic gymnast

A high-level panel at the UN in New York, organised by PACE’s Social Affairs Committee and bringing together representatives from FIFA, the UN Secretary General and UNICEF, has highlighted the urgent need to protect children who face sexual abuse from those in their “circle of trust” – and heard moving testimony from an Olympic gymnast who faced such abuse about the difficulty of starting to talk about her experience.

The event, on the fringe of the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on the UN Sustainable Development Goals in New York, at UN Headquarters, was titled: “We need to talk… to stop sexual abuse of children in the circle of trust”. Participants included Inter-Parliamentary Union President Gabriela Cuevas Barron, the new UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children Najat Maalla M’jid, UNICEF’s Director of Programs Ted Chaiban, FIFA’s Joyce Cook, survivor Gloria Viseras and Baroness Doreen Massey (United Kingdom, SOC), PACE rapporteur on “Ending violence against children: a Council of Europe contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.

All panellists agreed that the fight against violence against children has to become a priority. Sadly, the number of victims is going up rather than down worldwide, as Ms Maalla M’jid emphasised. The necessary toolkits to put words into action are available: UNICEF has much experience on the ground, while the IPU has developed handbooks for parliamentarians, and FIFA has just launched a new child safeguarding programme – “FIFA guardians” – building on the experience of the Council of Europe and its “start to talk” campaign (run by EPAS).

The moving testimony of survivor and Olympic athlete-gymnast Gloria Viseras highlighted the importance of creating safe spaces for children to start to talk about sexual violence, as well as preventing it from happening in the first place.

Baroness Massey, who also presented her report at UNICEF’s side-event on “Leave no child behind” the same day, highlighted three urgent recommendations from her report which were endorsed by the Parliamentary Assembly at the end of June:

• make it possible for children to speak up;
• train everyone working with children, but also judges, prosecutors, and lawyers;
• consult, involve and listen to children.