Global childhood: common challenges

I went to a great conference in Manchester last week called Youth, Participation, Impact organised by Su Corcoran. There were many things about the conference that inspired me, but one of my over-riding take-aways was that young people's experiences are common across cultures and countries.

Sadly I missed the first day, but on the second day I was particularly inspired by a partnership between two organisations - Railway Children and Juconi - which focused on working with parents of street-connected children by offering them care and support to help them better cope with parenthood. Sylvia Reves from Juconi explained how some parents had never experienced caring, empathetic relationships in their lives and so were unable to provide this kind of support for their children. We heard about the mother who was kicked out of home at the age of 12 for getting pregnant by her step-father. She subsequently went on to have four children of her own, the eldest is currently in prison and the second child, a girl, used to earn money dancing in public at an early age. After meeting the daughter on the street, Juconi met and befriended her mother. Through building a relationship with the mother, the mother was able to learn about attachment and healthy relationships and therefore take her children back and care for them with the new relational skills she had learned. This will hopefully break the cycle of children fending for themselves in subsequent generations of her family. She also became a beacon for her community - someone other mothers came to for advice. In the same session, we heard about a project doing exactly the same thing in South Yorkshire! Here's my favourite quote from the session [paraphrased]:

"When you ask children about what they want, they don't say relationships with parents because they don't believe they can have them."

I liked this quote because it challenges the idea that people always know what they want, and helping is just a case of listening hard enough. During my fieldwork, the people that talked about the importance of relationships with families were self-supporting adults who used to live on the street and have the benefit of a certain level of hindsight.

On the Friday we heard from Ann Coffey MP who wrote a report on child sexual exploitation (2014) following incidents of sexual grooming of girls in Stockport, her constituency. A key line that struck me in her presentation was, "children don't have rights, parents have rights," as she explained how difficult it is for children to be heard and taken seriously. This comment mirrored the experiences of street-connected children and young people in Tanzania who are unable to access services without an adult advocate, which I always thought made the Convention on the Rights of the Child laughable. As Coffey said, children should have the rights outlined in the CRC, but in practice they are harder to realise and often are reliant on an adult's assessment of a child's capability to make decisions for themselves.

After this, I heard Deepti Patel, a former Kids Company employee talk about some of the problems with child protection in the UK and how many cases of abuse are not dealt with appropriately. Patel explained that this left children to suffer the consequences of a, probably very well intentioned but inevitably, flawed social services. Here's their "see the child" campaign launched a year ago.

Patel talked about the benefits of multidisciplinary teams which worked both at the root of young people's challenges while also helping them to progress, open up their opportunities and learn. Since Kid's Company worked on the front-line of child poverty in the UK, I was interested to hear about just how multifaceted the challenges that affect youth are. They explained that there is no silver-bullet approach to "helping" a young person, but that it takes a team of professionals years to help young people to improve their lives and prospects. I reflected on the children and young people I heard from in Tanzania and I wondered how many of them were traumatised by abuse, how many may have learning difficulties or how many had not yet learned to believe in themselves. I was looking at the young people through one lens, but I wondered what the Kids Company team would see if they met and assessed the same young people.

I spoke on the Friday afternoon about some of the reflections from my data (based on a former blog, here.) I was speaking to a room of mainly UK practitioners, but they could relate to the experiences of the young people I had been talking about, drawing parallels and providing insights.

My overall impression as I came away was admiration for the great practitioners I had met, relief that there were great people doing great work and also deliberation about my place in this field and where I might add value. Plenty of food for thought!

Header picture taken from Flickr, by Richard McKeever from Global Youth Work.