A group of current and past participants in the Ministry Formation program, offered through the Department of Ministry Services, attended the 19th Annual CTAUN Conference at the UN in New York City on April 6. They included Province directors and leaders from our sponsored ministries. Sister Eileen Reilly, SSND, NGO Representative to the UN for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, served as their guide for the day.
CTAUN, the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations, holds this annual conference to elevate topics relevant to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year’s topic was “Stepping Up to Protect the World’s Children.”
The line-up was impressive. The first panel alone included Alison Smale, UN Under-Secretary for Global Communications; Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict at the Under-Secretary level; Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children; and Marie-Paule Roudil, Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York and UNESCO Representative to the United Nations. It was inspiring to hear an all-women panel speak about the work they are doing in trying to protect today’s children, who are the largest generation of youth in history.
However, even with all of their hard work, every five minutes a child dies from violence. Children are the main victims of armed conflict, and hundreds of thousands of them have had their lives turned upside down by wars that have forced them to flee their countries, lose their families, give up their schooling, or condemned them to lives as reluctant soldiers or forced laborers. Violence begets violence, starting a vicious cycle of pain – but we can break the cycle by offering these children a world of hope and safety through the establishment of safe havens and educational opportunities.
Education is often the only way out for many of these children, which is why it is so important to protect educational institutions from attack. Terrorists target schools because education is a threat to their power. Education can help develop a culture of peace, where children are taught to see non-violence as the best option, handling differences of opinion with peace, not anger. The speakers reminded attendees that it is not selfish of children to desire and pursue peace – and that their peace would inspire peace in others and show how challenges in life can be handled by non-violence means.
Children also need to know that they have a voice in the world. Junior Ambassadors from New York shared their experiences communicating with children all over the world and the inequality they saw. In their lives, they are able to dance and sing, while across the world, some children can only run and scream. They are working toward a world where all children can dance.
It is not easy. Abject poverty forces many families to choose between putting their children to work and putting food on the table. Their childhoods are bartered for survival. Foster children age out of the system without any plan in place to protect them and become easy prey for traffickers. One hundred and sixty-eight million children in the world today are involved in child labor, which not only keeps them from an education, but also makes them more vulnerable to exploitation (particularly sexual exploitation). UN representatives and those who work with them are trying to bring about laws to end child labor and to punish those who engage in and profit from them. However, it is difficult to do so in a time when slavery is more prevalent and more profitable than ever before.
Gun violence is another area in which profits are often put ahead of the welfare of children. Sara Boyd, a former Model UN participant, is now a freshman at Lehigh University. She helped organize “Lehigh for Our Lives” to bring students from her school to DC for the March for Our Lives. She also co-founded the Student Political Action Committee, which champions non-partisan political activism on issues directly affecting college students. Boyd admitted that after years of being told that their wants, needs and thoughts did not matter, mass apathy had festered among her generation, keeping many of them out of politics.
The past few weeks have changed that, though. “This is a new moment for civil society, directed by our youth,” she said. “We are not afraid to demand better now, and thus we are making things happen. Youth are motivating youth, and we have unprecedented connectivity.”
- The path to change these teens and young adults are forging has three steps, according to Boyd:
- Empowerment – give them the tools to succeed
- Dialogue – conversations can and do happen if you are open to engaging rather than being polarizing
- Action – the culmination of dialogue, where opinions grow into ideas that become catalysts of change
Being a voice against gun violence is a role that Mark Barden never thought he would pursue. He was a musician enjoying a comfortable life with his schoolteacher wife and their three children. Then he lost his son Daniel, one of 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Wanting to be a beacon of hope and not a victim, he founded Sandy Hook Promise, which strives to provide programs and practices that protect children from gun violence, in honor of those lost to guns.
Barden stressed that gun violence is often preventable, with the perpetrators almost always talking about their plans before they act. He urged the conference attendees, many of whom were teachers, to look out for the warning signs of violence and to intervene immediately. His foundation has even created an app to help them get these students help anonymously. As for the idea of arming teachers with guns to prevent school shooting, Barden said, “Every way you play that out, it does not end well.”
One of the final presentations of the day was from Meg Gardinier of Child Fund Alliance, a global network of 11 child rights and development organizations, working in more than 60 countries, who have nurtured children, their families and their communities, providing nutrition, health care, education and life skills for more than 75 years. She shared with participants many great resources they could use to make concrete differences in the lives of children, particularly the children whose lives they touch every day. The Child Fund Alliance utilizes child-friendly accountability, actually soliciting responses from children as to whether the policies the Alliance is pursuing are truly meeting their needs, so her suggestions were well-received by the crowd, who seemed eager to go forth from the meeting and put into action all they had learned.
The SSND group held a debriefing about the day over a meal, sharing what they had learned and what about the day had affected them most. The participants also made connections between what they had heard and their respective ministries, reflecting on how they might apply these lessons to their schools or departments.
As SSND leaders, they also looked with Mother Theresa’s eyes at the children whose lives the conference had discussed. They shared their thoughts on how she might have felt when she looked upon the impoverished and undereducated children of her time, who had also lost much of their innocence to war and poverty. Some also shared that they had felt Jesus’ call to “let the children come to me” in their own hearts, making them even more determined to act on the lessons they had learned.