A few months ago we were confronted with a horrifying report of the vicious sexual violence and exploitation being perpetrated against young girls by gangs of men - this time in Rotherham, and on a scale previously unimagined. The findings had much in common with earlier commissions of inquiry into severe and persistent physical and sexual abuse of children from the 1990s - in Staffordshire, Leicestershire, North Wales and Ireland - and more recently with the exposés of sexual abuse by predatory men in positions of power in the media. These reports all documented abuse and exploitation of children which was able to continue unchallenged for many years, with the children powerless to protect themselves, or to enlist the protection of those with responsibilities for doing so. Why? How could this happen? The consistent and shameful truth is that children were able to be abused with impunity because nobody was listening to them. The message comes through time and again that children who tried to report what was happening to them were either ignored or disbelieved. Others were frightened into silence because they did not think they would be taken seriously or adequately protected if they did report it. Or indeed, that speaking out would lead to them being the ones to be punished. In other words they were denied the right to be heard and taken seriously - one of the fundamental principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which we in the UK signed up over 25 years ago.
The right and opportunity to express views and have them taken into account is a powerful tool through which to challenge situations of violence, abuse, threat, injustice or discrimination. The self-esteem and confidence acquired through participation empowers children to challenge abuses of their rights. Where children are encouraged to articulate what is happening to them, and provided with the necessary procedures through which they can raise concerns, violations of rights are far more easily exposed. Violence against children in families, schools, prisons, institutions and at the community level will be tackled more effectively if children themselves are enabled to tell their stories to those people with the authority to take appropriate action. Adults can only act to protect children if they are informed about what is happening in children's lives - and often, it is only children who can provide that information. By contrast, the silencing of children serves only as a gift to the abuser for whom it lends impunity.
What these reports highlight is that we have failed children. Much needs to change, not least in the cultural attitudes of many men towards women and girls. But the evidence provides eloquent testimony of a culture where children are invisible, where no effective mechanisms are in place through which they can complain or seek help, and where there are prevailing assumptions that children do not tell the truth. We need to take action now to change those assumptions - to demonstrate that we have now heard the message and are committed to ensuring that it never happens again. However, it is not sufficient simply to offer the space for children to report abuse when it arises. What is needed is more profound. We need a cultural change throughout society that recognises and respects the contributions that children make, creates spaces for them to participate at all levels of society, promotes the message that children are valued and active contributors within their communities.
But how to effect such a fundamental shift in the nature of adult-child interaction? One initiative pointing a way forward is Child to Child's UK schools programme, Hearing All Voices. The programme delivers systematic professional development for staff to embed a culture change in the relationships between adults and young people in schools. It builds adults' ability to support the development of the life-skills and sense of agency that young people require to make a real difference to their world and engenders relationships built on capacity to listen and mutual respect. Only with programmes such as this will the fundamental violation of the rights of young people we witness with such regularity come to an end.
We need to make sure that every child not only feels able to report abuse being perpetrated against them, but also knows where and how to do that and can do so safely, and with confidence that she or he will be believed. We need to make a commitment to children that it is them, not the abusers who will be protected from hereon. Within all cultures, and for children of all ages, the belief that if you are young you should be seen and not heard, with all that it represents, must finally be laid to rest.