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A word with the Commissioner for Children

The Convention of the Rights of the Child is twenty years old this November; it was adopted and opened for signature on 20 November 1989 and entered into force on 2 September 1990. Malta is is a party to the Treaty, and has had a Commissioner for Children since 2003.

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Commissioner for Children Ms Carmen Zammit, speaking at her office at 469, St Joseph High Road, St Venera, explained that she is just a voice with no executive powers, conveying and protecting the interests of the child in Malta, by assessing various scenarios which affect children, bringing perceived shortcomings to the attention of the competent authorities, and making recommendations with regard to the way forward, where it is felt that these are required. Her Office receives complaints from the general public, which her team of qualified investigators look into, but also acts on its own initiative, assessing situations which it got to know about without anybody having complained about them. The Commissioner also dedicates a lot of energy and resources to disseminating information. An example of a task that the Commissioner took on, concerns the creation of a register for paedophiles and other offenders. After years urging the Authorities to create such a register, this stands a good chance of materialising some time soon, since the relevant legislation is in the process of being drafted.

Maltas Commissioner for Children discussed her work with a passion that reflects her convictions. From our conversation it is evident that she is not just going through the motions, but actually striving against the odds and difficulties to get her message through to the right people and instigate change (notwithstanding her limited means, including budget, staffing and legal powers). We must look after our children, she explains, because the way they are brought up will have long lasting repercussions. We must also look after the family, and when the family cannot provide the correct ingredients for a healthy upbringing, the State should intervene and have the facilities necessary to make up for the shortfall. These words recall to mind the Convention's Preamble: 'childhood is entitled to special care and assistance... the family...(is the) fundamental group of society' and article 9 (separation from the family determined by judicial review, when necessary for the best interests of the child; also articles 19 & 20 on protecting the child.

Children need a proper education too, which goes beyond the purely academic traditional subjects taught in school, and which Malta unfortunately is rather too inclined towards, so far. Children also need help, in the form of recourse to child-friendly systems of access to justice, a system where lawyers and judges receive special training in how to handle cases involving children. The manner in which children are exposed to the judicial system is appalling; the absence of child friendly measures, not only in the courts but also in so many other places, shows how much needs to be done. The needs of unaccompanied minors also need to be better seen to, while the Prison's Youths Section needs to be moved out from Corradino ..... these are just some of the issues that the Commissioner for Children is focusing on.

Do the Authorities understand all this, I ask Ms Zammit. Some are too busy to spare the time to consider her message, while others are sceptical, she explains. Talk to teachers about childrens
rights, and human rights education for that matter, tends to be met with resistance, and the stock reply that children have obligations too. She is quick to retort that such reactions reflect a lack of understanding; and that she never promotes the rights of the child as a one-way road leading to children rising over the top of their parents and teachers heads. The Convention is not a power struggle, but about ensuring that the needs of an important, yet vulnerable, group of society are seen to properly.

We conclude with a call for fuller compliance of domestic legislation with the Convention, in order for the rights enshrined to be fully implemented at all levels. Unfortunately the Country is still some way off from this, a worrying factor in itself, not only because not implementing the Convention could have repercussions, but also because it indicates that Maltese children are not getting the best deal that they are entitled to.

 

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