Opening address by Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of the High Level Event on the impact of violence on children’s mental health
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated lives, communities and entire economies. As the progression of the virus shows signs of abatement, we know that we still have a long way to go. The pandemic has also laid bare the inequalities and fragilities of our societies. It has disproportionately hurt the weakest. In order to build back better, we need to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and support them in building their own resilience.
Families, communities, societies are meant to provide for, guide and protect their children and their youth. During the pandemic, however, many children and young people found themselves in the frontline. Because of the lockdown, they have been hit by poverty, deprived of protection, schooling and contacts with their peers. Often they have been forced into work, into sexual exploitation, into criminal activities or into early marriages. Domestic violence, online abuse, and mental health issues were already rampant. They have dramatically increased during the pandemic.
The United Nations system raised the alarm very early on. No one today should pretend they are unaware: we have a widespread societal problem on our hands and a challenge of vast proportions to tackle. We should put this raised awareness to good use and move to act.
Whether in conflict, in family settings, in institutions or at the hands of their peers, violence against children inevitably affects their physical health. But, more insidiously, it can have a long-term impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and, in turn, on their psychological development. Emotional wounds can be the cause of lasting anxieties, depression or self-harming behaviors. They can permanently alter the capacity of children and young people to fulfill their potential and to live a rewarding life, as members of a family, as pupils and students, and later as responsible citizens or parents. The consequences of their traumas can impact the lives of their own children and their children’s children, generation after generation.
We need to create environments where children in need are safe, where they know to whom they can turn for protection, and where they can easily access proper counselling and care. But we also need to invest heavily in their mental wellbeing, and in the prevention of all forms of violence and their dramatic consequences for children. We need to work with families, schools, communities, institutions, media, and the justice system. Under no circumstances can we justify or condone any form of violence by adults. Adults should, by definition, be the prime protectors and caregivers. We need to change the mindset.
Much evidence-based guidance and many useful advocacy references have already been issued by UNICEF, by WHO, by the Special Representative of the Secretary General, by civil society organizations and academia. A great deal of research is already available and should be pursued. Partnerships are key. What we need now is the will to implement efficient strategies, based on interaction between all the stakeholders. This entails taking action on development, on poverty, on nutrition, on health – and in particular, mental health - on education, but also on social protection, governance, and justice. These strategies should be anchored in the SDGs, which provide a ready-made, coherent and accessible framework for their implementation.
As we move ahead, let us also listen to the children’s voices. Let us pay attention to the power of their resilience. Let us, for once, look at the world from their perspective. The world that we adults have built for them. A world that should have been protective and safe for everyone. Let us ask ourselves where we have failed to deliver on these promises and how we can rectify the situation.