This week, from 19 to 25 June, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda.
Heads of State from across the Commonwealth are gathering to reaffirm their common values and agree on actions to improve the lives of the 2.5 billion people in the 54 countries of the Commonwealth. Civil society organisations and other actors can also participate in the forums at CHOGM – the Women’s Forum, the People’s Forum, the Youth Forum, and the Business Forum.
For many throughout the Commonwealth, CHOGM is an opportunity to advocate for change around important issues.
At It’s a Penalty, together with our partners the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) and our friends at the Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work (COSW), we have identified that there is a need to champion the protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse at this year’s CHOGM.
Every child in the Commonwealth has the right to be protected from all forms of violence, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which all Commonwealth countries are signatories to. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased the vulnerability of children in the Commonwealth to both online and offline child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA), along with increased incidences of child marriage, FGM/C and worst forms of child labour.
In March, during Commonwealth Week, It’s a Penalty convened an online webinar to begin a wider Commonwealth conversation about the importance of addressing the sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the Commonwealth. We were joined by representatives from various Commonwealth accredited organisations representing key sectors in our advocacy campaign (parliamentarians, lawyers, social workers, human rights leaders), as well as the Head of the Human Rights Unit at the Commonwealth Secretariat. Watch the webinar here.
In May, It’s a Penalty, with support from the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Trust Law and other legal partners, published a research report analysing Prosecution/legislation, Protection and Prevention systems addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse in 21 Commonwealth countries. Click here to read the Report and Executive Summary. The report serves as the evidence base for It’s a Penalty’s CommonProtect programme, which aims to encourage legal reform and systems change throughout the Commonwealth to better protect children from these forms of violence, improve survivors’ access to justice and support, and end impunity for offenders.
At the online launch of the report, It’s a Penalty and the CLA were pleased to have the supportive words of the Commonwealth Secretary General, Patricia Scotland QC, for the CommonProtect initiative:
“Thank you to the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and It’s a Penalty for their strong interest and commitment to protect children from exploitation and abuse across the Commonwealth. Today, we acknowledge that despite the effort put in place by different actors such as parents, governments, academics, civil society and media to protect children from sexual exploitation, there is still work to be done. Our Commonwealth is committed to a world where young people can thrive; sexual exploitation and abuse hinders growth to children. If not us, who? If not now, when?”
The CommonProtect report found that several gaps in the laws in Commonwealth countries leave children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, a lack of proper implementation of existing laws, limited knowledge of laws by law enforcement and child protection actors, and low awareness amongst the general public or clashes with traditional social norms severely undermine efforts to protect children from these forms of violence, achieve justice for survivors, and prosecute offenders.
Today at 5pm in Rwanda, COSW and International Social Service (ISS) are facilitating a roundtable discussion on ‘Safeguarding Children in the Commonwealth’ in which the Commonwealth Lawyers Association will be participating to share some of the findings of the CommonProtect research report. This session will seek to generate new ideas about how to transform systems, institutions and attitudes to secure a better future that leaves no Commonwealth child behind.
We look forward to the outcomes of this year’s CHOGM and hope that the protection of children is highlighted as an important issue on which governments throughout the Commonwealth must take action.
Elizabeth Speller, Advocacy Director, It’s a Penalty
Helen Jones MBE, Commonwealth Advocacy Adviser, It’s a Penalty