The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma talks about her role.
I was appointed as Commissioner for Children and Young People by the First and deputy First Ministers in March 2015. The legislation requires that my paramount consideration are the rights and best interests of children and young people, having particular regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The role of Children’s Commissioner is common across the world, representing governments’ commitment to delivering on the minimum standards of the UNCRC. What sets the Commissioners role apart from the many other excellent organisations who work in the children’s sector in Northern Ireland, is the uniqueness in being the independent human rights institution for children.
There appears to be a belief that children’s rights represents some sort of Nirvana, that can only be achieved when the all stars of resources and attitudes align – it is not. The UNCRC is a non-negotiable set of minimum standards that provides the framework which must guide every decision made and action taken, that impacts the lives of children and young people.
Established to advise all government bodies, NICCY’s work focuses on ensuring children, young people and their families know about their rights. We do this by advising, monitoring and holding government to account, as well as undertaking investigations and supporting individual children.
I expect government and its agencies to view the advice I give, with the same gravitas it does others, including its legal advisors. Whilst I recognise the duty of our elected representatives to take their own decisions based on the evidence before them, I welcome the discussions and debate which ensue on the advice and guidance I give, both when they take it, and when they do not.
As I end my first year, of a four year term, I am beginning to appreciate the challenges ahead. There are over 430,000 children and young people living in Northern Ireland, with many issues affecting their lives. I have now identified priorities, which I believe have the most detrimental impact on children’s life chances. These are child poverty (26 per cent of children are living in absolute poverty) , mental health (28 per cent of young people report concerns) and educational inequalities.
Last year we engaged with nearly 500 young people, who confirmed that our priorities were the right ones and raised others. Of particular concern is that they generally do not feel they are treated equally, or always respected by adults, or feel safe and supported to be themselves, either in school or their communities. Community safety remains a key concern, particularly the presence of, and threat from paramilitary type organisations.
Today, too many children are living with the impact of a conflict, not of their making and which ‘ended’ before they were born. What is clear, is that young people want to be involved in decisions for the future of Northern Ireland.
US President Humphries said, “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” It is my intention that Northern Ireland will not be found wanting.
Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People
7-9 Shaftsbury Square, Belfast, BT2 7DP
Tel: 028 9031 1616