The Commissioner for Children’s Rights was established by law in 2007 [L.74(I)/2007] in an effort to comply with the Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning the second Periodic Report submitted by Cyprus in 2003 and pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The institution is in full compliance with the “Paris Principles” and General Comment No. 2 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on “The role of independent human rights institutions”.
The mission of the Commissioner is to protect and promote children’s rights. Her extensive competences, set out by law, include, inter alia, representing children and their interests at all levels, promoting public awareness and sensitivity, identifying and promoting the views of the children where they cannot be heard, supervising and monitoring the implementation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child and the European Convention on the Exercise of Children Rights, monitoring the legislation administrative decisions, policies and practices and submitting proposals to the Government and Parliament, representing children in court, and, in general, to take any action as she may deem necessary in the fulfillment of her mission within the framework of the Law.
Having the honour and the responsibility of being the first Commissioner in Cyprus, I have set the protection of children from any kind of abuse or violence, particularly within their family, as a top priority. To this end, I have undertaken a number of initiatives and have been actively involved in several projects and activities on issues related to domestic violence and children.
In this presentation I will first refer shortly to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with emphasis on its provisions concerning protection; then I will give a brief overview of the current situation in Cyprus regarding domestic violence against children and I will focus on the national legal framework and the procedures for handling cases of child abuse within the family, pointing out identified weaknesses and giving my recommendations for improvement. Finally, I will refer to relevant initiatives I have undertaken and I will explore prospects and challenges.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989 and today stands as the most highly ratified instrument in international law, having been ratified by all members of the UN, with the sole exceptions of the USA and Somalia.
The CRC lays the foundation for a new concept of children and childhood. Children should not be perceived as, “not yets”, as “human beings in the making”, but as “beings” “entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” CRC, Preamble . The conception of children as subjects of rights grands them a more equal role in their relationship with adults. CRC recognizes the child as a person with fundamental rights and freedoms. Children are not, any more, considered to be, merely passive recipients of adult’s experience, simple consumers of adults’ opinions and ideas, but active social agents, purposefully engaged in their surroundings from an early age. In this respect, participation is a human right for all children – and as such, it is not a gift or privilege bestowed by adults on children; It is the right of every child capable of expressing a view.
The CRC covers the full spectrum of human rights, bringing together civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and recognizing each and every one of them as inherent to the human dignity of the child and necessary for his/ her full and harmonious development. The rights included in CRC are usually discussed in the following three clusters, known as the three P’s :
Provision: The CRC establishes the right to resources, and access to services for the development of children to their full potential. Among others, the CRC recognizes the right of children to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of healthcare, the right to an adequate standard of living, to education and childcare, to cultural life and the arts.
Protection: The CRC claims protection of children from violence, abuse neglect, and exploitation, reflecting a basic human consensus that a world fit for children is one in which all children are protected. The CRC underlines that a protective non-violent environment is a necessary precondition for children, their survival and development to their full potential.
Participation: The CRC binds State parties to empower children and provide them with the instruments enabling their participation in the social life and becoming competent decision makers.
The above grouping does not imply that the rights are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the rights in the Convention are indivisible inter-related and mutually reinforcing. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in an effort to emphasize the holistic approach of the CRC, has recognized four general principles underlying the CRC, which must be taken into the account in the interpretation of all other provisions and as guiding their implementation. These are:
1. Non – Discrimination: Children must not suffer discrimination "irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status." (Article 2)
2. Right to life and development: Children have a right to survival and development in all aspects of their lives, including the physical, emotional, psychosocial, cognitive, social and cultural. (Article 6.a)
3. Best Interest of the Child: The best interest of the child must be a primary consideration in all decisions or actions affecting child or children as a group. This holds true whether decisions are made by governmental, administrative or judicial authorities, or by families themselves. (Article 3)
4. Participation: Article 12 of the CRC, the core provision on participation rights, essentially provides that:
· children capable of forming their own views should be allowed to express those views freely in all matters affecting them
· those views should be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child
· children should, in particular, be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting them.
A number of provisions of the CRC establish a comprehensive legal framework that serves as an overarching structure to promote the prevention of violence against children.
In terms of domestic violence, Article 19 addresses child abuse and recommends a broad outline for its identification, reporting, investigation, treatment, follow-up and prevention. According to article 19 (1) the State shall protect the child from all forms of maltreatment by parents or others responsible for the care of the child and establish appropriate social programs for the prevention of abuse and the treatment of victims.
I am sure it is, by now, clear to you that, the CRC is for me, as for many other institutions dealing with children rights, the main instrument for addressing domestic violence.
Domestic Violence and Children in Cyprus
Unfortunately, domestic violence against children, including sexual violence, one of the worst form of violence against children, is a reality in Cyprus. Furthermore, as in most Europeans societies, this is a taboo issue compounded by a culture of
, silence and denial. Therefore, as in many other countries, it remains among the most underreported forms of violence. The consequential low rate of reporting incident by those affected and the lack of an accurate national registration system of statistics on child abuse, makes it extremely difficult to establish with any accuracy the extent and types of domestic violence against children and the number of children abused.
Two empirical studies, that have been conducted at a national level to assess the issue of child abuse in Cyprus, confirmed the extent of the problem. There is not, however, clear consistency in the findings of these studies, particularly with regard to the overall magnitude of the problem.
The first study, commissioned by the Advisory Committee for the Prevention and Combating of Domestic Violence (“Domestic Violence in Cyprus”), was conducted in 2000 with a stratified sample of 1000 individuals, aged 16 and older. According to it, 97.7 % believe that domestic violence is a problem for the Cypriot family. Regarding violence against children, one third reported that there are occasions when a parent is justified in hitting a child, while 15 % reported that they do not consider pushing, shaking, pinching or ear pulling of a child as forms of violence.
According to a subsequent study (“Dimensions and Forms of Violence against Children within the Cypriot Family”) which was conducted among a nationally representative sample of students age 12 – 18 years old, one fifth of the participants, reported that they had been physically assaulted by a family member, mostly in the form of smacking, spanking, ear and hair pulling, punching and kicking; half of them reported that they had witnessed inter-parental disputes.
The legal framework
Cyprus has developed a comprehensive institutional framework and, in general, implements a policy of active promotion and protection of the rights of the child.
In terms of domestic violence, Cyprus was one of the first countries in the world to introduce a special law in 1994. The initial Law has since then been revised twice. The current legal framework is based on The Violence in the Family (Prevention and Protection of Victims) Laws 2000 and 2004.
The Law addresses various forms of violence by a member of the family against another and has an inclusive approach which provides for the protection of victims, the punishment of those responsible and the provisions of therapy for those are involved in incidents of domestic violence.
According to section 2 “violence means any act, omission or behavior which causes physical, sexual or mental injury to any member of the family by another member of the family and includes violence used for the purpose of having sexual intercourse without the consent of the victim as well as of restricting its freedom”.
The term “member of the family” in the context of the law has a wide meaning as it includes common law spouses, their parents and children, irrespective of whether such children are natural or adopted, and their grandchildren, as well as also any person residing with any of the aforementioned persons. (Section 2)
Section 3 is of particular importance for children as it addresses the indirect victimization. It provides that any act or behaviour constituting violence “when committed in the presence of a minor member of the family, shall be considered as violence used against the said minor if it may cause to him/her mental injury”.
The Law provides for the setting up of a multi-sectoral Advisory Committee for the Prevention and Combating of Violence in the Family with the mission to monitor the implementation of the Law, in collaboration with the public sector’s services / government departments and non-governmental associations/ organizations involved in combating family violence. Its competences include, inter alia, the promotion of scientific research on the field, the strengthening of co-operation with NGO’s, the provision of support and assistance to the victims and the development of an effective training program for professionals involved in the handling of domestic violence cases.
The Committee prepared in 2002 a Manual of Interdepartmental Procedures which provides a framework for the cooperation of relevant departments of family violence, including the Social Welfare Services, the Police Force, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, the Law Office of the Republic, and relevant NGOs.
The Committee has recently launched a National Action Plan for the Prevention and Combating of Violence in the Family for the period 2010-2013, including the promotion of a Code of Ethics concerning children victims of family violence.
Social Welfare Services and the Police have a central role to play in combating domestic violence against children in Cyprus.
The Social Welfare Services provide child protection services to children who are deprived of their family support. Every effort is made to ensure that, removal of children from their family environment is only effected in the best interest of the child. The Director of Social Welfare Services is empowered by law to take children who are in need of care and protection into his/her care and, where necessary, assume parental responsibility. Specially trained family counselors have a wide range of responsibilities, including receiving complaints relating to the possible use of violence, carrying out necessary investigations, advising, counseling and mediating for the relief of problems in the family that are likely to have led or to lead to the use of violence.
Since 2002, a Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Office operates within the Cyprus Police. Its staff comprises, inter-alia, a psychologist and a sociologist. The Office undertakes and supervises both preventive and combative measures and is in charge of all issues related to child abuse.
Commissioner’s Role and Recommendations
My work, as Commissioner for Children Rights regarding the protection of children, in general, and the protection of children within their family, in particular, aims, on the one hand, at raising awareness on the importance of the legal obligation to secure children’s protection from abuse and, on the other, at monitoring governmental and legislative action with a view to ensure that policies, decisions, practices and legislation are harmonized with the CRC and provide an effective framework for the protection of children from any form of violence and abuse.
Through my meetings with groups of children (during my visits at school, discussions with my Youth Advisory Panel, interaction with the Students Council), I ascertained early enough that domestic violence is an issue of serious concern for children as well. They always raise the issue of domestic violence against children as a matter affecting “someone I know”, “a friend”. It is quite evident that there is a need to provide them with more information and guidance as to how to handle either personal experiences of this kind or experiences confided in them by their friends.
In view of the large number of complaints concerning abuse of children submitted to my Office, and upon publications in the daily press about cases of domestic violence against children, and, moreover, Court decisions imposing unsatisfactory sentences to convicts of sexual abuse against children, I deemed it necessary, in April 2008, to make a public intervention on the issue. My aim was to open “a public dialogue”. I expressed my strong concerns for the social repercussions. I stressed that, society should not remain silent. The State should take into account the provisions of the CRC and, in particular, those of Article 3 and 19, that the best interest of the child should be a primary consideration and that any decisions should aim at protecting children from any form of abuse, including sexual abuse. They should also aim at giving a message to the society that such action can in no way be excused or condoned and that for any act of violence against children, the adult who exercises such violence is solely responsible.
Following that, in May 2008 I convened a meeting of all competent authorities, governmental and non-governmental. Those included inter alia, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Health, the Social Welfare Services, the Police, the Advisory Committee for the Prevention and Combating of Violence in the Family, the Association for the Prevention and Handling of Violence in the Family, the Cyprus Family Planning Association. Through a constructive dialogue, the obligations of the State arising from the Convention were analysed in depth.
I set the following basic pillars of these obligations:
· Adoption of a National Strategy and Action Plan
· Banning all forms of violence
· Promotion of values against violence
· Reporting systems
· Information on children’s rights
· Awareness-raising campaigns
· Systematic training of professionals working with children
· National legislation to protect children from all forms of violence
· Assistance to parents for Positive Parenting.
· Detection – Reporting – Referral – Investigation – Treatment – Monitoring.
· Establishment of a National Data Collection System
· Appropriate judicial involvement
· Provision of children’s rehabilitation and social integration programmes.
· Ensuring the participation of children
Shortcomings in existing programmes were identified. The starting point is that, though a National Strategy on domestic violence is promoted, there is no National Strategy and Action Plan on violence against children, in and out of the family. That initiative marked the beginning of an on – going process towards launching a National Strategy to tackle violence against children.
At the same time I have put pressure on the Government to expedite ratification the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
The public dialogue continued – through the Media, at public events, etc. This is an issue I constantly discuss during my meetings with children (at schools and elsewhere) with parents, professionals (at special meetings and/or training courses) and the society at large. By creating awareness you mobilize things.
Now, in 2010, we see a change of attitude, slow and hesitant as it may be, at the level of Government, Parliament, and the Judiciary.
A special Committee has been formed at the initiative of the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, comprising also the Minister of Education, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Health, the Police, the Law Office and the Commissioner for Children´s Rights. This Committee took on board my recommendations on the matter. Its main aims are: a) the evaluation of the programmes that each authority runs for the prevention and handling of violence against children and b) the promotion of new programmes to meet the gaps.
This I consider as the starting point for the development of a National Strategy and an Action Plan to combat violence against children, in or out of the family.
Parliamentary Committees are now taking initiatives to revise existing legislations to make them more effective in combating violence against children. Examples of that are, the Criminal Code, in relation to offences against morality and, particularly, those of sexual abuse of children, the Law on Violence in the Family to make it even more effective. The Parliamentary Committee on Education decided to examine the issue of “the problems that may arise by the use of the Internet by students and the measures that have to be taken”, and have asked me to take a leading role. At the same time, political parties joined issue in the dialogue I opened for combating violence against children. Suffice it to mention that representations of the two major political parties in Parliament have come to my Office to discuss the matter, urging me to take initiatives to combat violence against children and offering their support.
In the summer of 2010 we have seen a change of stance in judicial decisions. Not only do they impose higher terms of imprisonment for sexual offences against children, but they stress the seriousness of such offences which “not only do they turn against morality but they insult the personality of the victim”; they also stress that accounts should be taken of the special social circumstances of Cyprus, the increasing number of such cases and the obligation of the Court to protect effectively the victims, the family and the society.
Awareness raising campaigns remain one of my main targets, and this relates to the issue of domestic violence against children. Through my Visits to Schools Programme entitled “Give voice to your opinion” I have consultations with children during which I regularly discuss violence against children and, in particular, domestic violence. This also applies to my contacts with parents, professionals working with children, NGOs and the community at large, or through the Media.
I participated to a series of seminars on “Child Abuse” for educators, some of them organized by the NGO Association for the Prevention and Handling Violence in the Family. These seminars gave the opportunity to school teachers to enlighten themselves on the multidimensional causes of child abuse and to discuss and share experiences so as to empower themselves in identifying and dealing with abused children.
Last, but not least, I am in close collaboration with the Cyprus Police, in the field of in-service training on issues relating to the protection of children, and in particular handling of a child victim witness or perpetrator of violence.
Domestic violence, the victims of which more often than not, directly or indirectly, are children, continues to be one of the major problems of modern Cypriot society. In order to tackle it - precisely because of its complex and particular nature – it is necessary, on the one hand, to study the issue scientifically and in depth, and, on the other, to implement coordinated action of the public and private sector agencies together with NGOs through civil society. This is the reason I insist that the development of a National Strategy and Action Plan for tackling domestic violence against children is sine qua non, if the state is determined to combat this major social problem effectively.