Clara Gray, 16, is one of a group of amazing young people in Scotland we supported to create recommendations around mental health to take to Europe’s Commissioners for Children and Young People.
Last month, she travelled with the Commissioner Bruce to Paris for the annual conference of the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children, and this is how her experience went.
From the 18th to the 21st of September 2018, I had the incredible opportunity to attend ENOC 2018 – the annual European Network of Ombudspersons for Children conference – in Paris, representing the views of Scotland’s children and young people on mental health.
Earlier this year, I was one of a small group of young people from across Scotland who came up with recommendations on mental health, which were discussed in Barcelona in June with young people from 10 other countries around Europe. These were compiled to create a massive list of recommendations, with the aim of improving young people’s experiences of mental health.
“I went to Paris alongside the office of the Scottish Children and Young People’s Commissioner. Bruce - the Commissioner, Nick - Head of Advice and Investigation, and Kara - International Legal Officer. Together we made up TEAM SCOTLAND!”
Getting Stuck In
I was a bit nervous beforehand as I had never been on a trip like this before, I’d never met any of the young people, and I didn’t really have much idea of what was going to happen. Safe to say, the nerves didn’t last long: Bruce, Kara and Nick helped me to feel at home. When we arrived in Paris we met up with the representatives from Northern Ireland and we hit it off immediately, chatting way into the night (sorry Bruce!).
On Wednesday afternoon I met the other young people, and I was genuinely surprised at how welcoming everyone was and how well I fitted in. We were given the task of putting together a two-and-a-half-hour-long presentation of our recommendations for the next day. It was a difficult thing to do because none of us had ever had to present for that long before, and we needed to make sure we got our points across. With the help of our coordinators and Bruce, we overcame the language barriers, compromised and discussed the best ways to fill the allocated time with a presentation we would be proud of. We couldn’t include all of our recommendations, as there were 48! However, we chose a select few from each of the categories – Education, Health, Media, Community and Government – and the whole list will be available online at a later date.
Our presentation went very smoothly, and we were all very happy with how it turned out. Our aim was to make our presentation engaging and interactive to leave a lasting impression on the Ombudspersons.
We began in the audience, reading our statement on mental health; we chose to start like this as it showed that children and young people are part of society as well, and that every decision that is made impacts us too. We showed a video of the work done in Barcelona, then introduced ourselves and how we got involved with ENOC.
To ensure that our recommendations were heard, we played a game called ‘Telephone’ where the participants had to whisper one of our recommendations down their line and see if it remained the same at the end. We chose this game as it would demonstrate the fact that sometimes our voices get distorted, diluted and drowned out in ‘adult conversations’. It was good to witness the adults listening to our ideas and getting so competitive with one another.
The adults continued to work in their groups to discuss the recommendation they’d been given, and worked together to come up with ways to ‘solve’ the issue. I was pleased to see that they were engaging with each other, comparing their countries’ responses and asking questions. They then presented their ideas to everyone else, explaining how they’d tackle the problems and issues we had raised. It gave a good insight into how they use our views in their day-to-day jobs.
Last year’s topic for discussion was on ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education,’ and as part of our presentation we wanted to hold the Ombudspersons to account. We asked them how they took on board the young people’s recommendations. After a slightly hesitant start, we were surprised by the amount of countries that came forward to share their progress. It was really encouraging to hear, as it made me fully realise that our ideas were taken seriously and used to make real changes all across Europe. We will pass this feedback on to last year’s ENYA participants.
We ended the presentation by encouraging the countries to continue to cooperate internationally to work together like they had during the games, to improve mental healthcare experiences for the whole continent. To illustrate this point, we wanted to connect every person in the room by linking hands which resulted in a long chain of people from the stage all the way to the back of the room; young people, Ombudspersons, staff, journalists and the top children’s human rights advocates in the world holding hands, smiling and singing ‘Inclusive World’ (the song from ENYA in Barcelona). It was a really powerful moment that I’ll never forget, as it brought everyone together in such a simple way that delivered a beautiful message of cooperation, a shared goal and family. “The adults were not adults, the children were not children – we were just a team.”
Throughout the conference I got the incredible experience of meeting and speaking to some of the most powerful and influential advocates of children’s human rights in the world. The young people spoke to Geneviève Avenard – the chair of ENOC – about the importance of involving young people in decisions, providing a platform and an outlet for us to have our voices heard and how to involve us in her work. I was also introduced to Regina Jensdottir, The Council of Europe’s representative on the Rights of the Child, who gave me advice about university and possible internships in the future. It was inspiring to hear that there are so many pathways and opportunities for young people to work for human rights organisations across the globe.
On Wednesday night’s dinner cruise (which was surreal in itself!) I had the immense privilege of interviewing Marta Santos Pais, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children!!! I talked to her about some of the most pertinent issues affecting children and young people in Scotland, including the incorporation of the UNCRC into our legal framework, equal protection and the age of criminal responsibility. These interviews will hopefully be used to influence the Scottish Government to improve the human rights of children in Scotland, and I am honoured to be a part of such an important cause. Meeting Marta was a highlight for me as I aspire to work for the UN in the future, and it was inspiring to have her defend our rights and to hear her speak so passionately.
As much as it was an honour and a privilege to be able to work alongside so many esteemed adults in what was essentially my dream job, the people that made the biggest impact and inspired me most were the other young people. We overcame language and cultural barriers, encouraged and motivated each other and became very close within a matter of hours. Thanks to the wonders of social media, it is much easier for me to keep in contact with my new friends from across Europe, which is why I am very excited about next year’s ENOC topic: Digital Rights! I am sure that next year’s ENYA participants will have just as an amazing time as we did, and I am looking forward to hearing how countries plan to progress with our recommendations.
It is incredibly important for young people to be able to have a say and have an opportunity to share our views and opinions. We make up such a huge proportion of society – almost a quarter of the world’s population – and the fact that the majority of our voices aren’t heard because we can’t vote is unacceptable. It must become commonplace for organisations, places of influence and governments to involve young people in their work and in their decision-making processes. All decisions and actions that are taken will affect us too, whether that is now or in the future. Our human rights aren’t taken into account and respected at every level of decision making, and I am so glad that platforms such as ENOC value the opinions and experiences of young people so highly. More organisations should follow suit.
It was the most overwhelming week in the best way! We achieved so much, and on the train home it hit me what an incredible opportunity I’d been given— and I proceeded to look like an absolute numpty as I cried happy tears all the way home from Dundee! So, I encourage you to get involved. For adults: provide a platform for young people’s voices to be heard, listen and act; and for children: shout. Shout as loudly and as passionately as you can. Remember, you don’t need qualifications or experience to be a #humanrightsdefender.