“Violence can happen everywhere: on social media, in schools, in alternative care, in public transport. There is not always an adult present. Therefore, it is crucial that you listen to what children and young people have to say about it, and always take us seriously,” reads one of the key messages from the International Young Expert Group of “Applying Safe Behaviors”.
Peer violence is among the most common forms of violence affecting children’s lives. It has many forms: bullying and intimidation, physical abuse, cyberbullying, sexual harassment and abuse. According to the latest available data from United Nations, one in three children globally experiences some form of bullying. A similar proportion are affected by physical violence in and around school1.
As a result of adverse experiences many of them have had, children and young people without parental care or at risk of losing it are more vulnerable to becoming victims of violence from their peers or to becoming initiators of violence themselves.
Co-funded by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union, the two-year project called “Applying Safe Behaviours: Preventing and Responding to Peer Violence Amongst Children Without or At Risk of Losing Parental Care” aimed to equip children, young people and care professionals with the tools to address peer violence. The project started with a scoping phase: peer-to-peer research interviews with young people and a survey for professionals that informed the capacity building, awareness raising and advocacy that came after. Meaningful participation of children and young people shaped every stage of the process.
Participation – a right and a need
“We are used to grown-ups taking decisions. Children and young people just go along with them because they think these are the rules,” said 18-year-old Dana from Romania. “I believe participation is our right simply because the decisions the adults take impact us too”.
Dana grows up in SOS Children’s Villages in Romania and is now in her final year of high school. She contributed to all stages of the project, from scoping, through creating awareness-raising videos (1,2), to training Romanian children and young people. When asked about her reasons for joining “Safe Behaviours”, she said: “Peer violence is sadly very common. I wanted to see change, but I also wanted to see youth participation in practice. I had not heard of a project that engaged children in decision-making before”.
Twenty-five-year-old Maryam from Morocco grew up in SOS Children’s Villages in Spain. She conducted research interviews with Spanish children and young people and, once she became a master trainer, trained care professionals in seven locations in the country.
“In Safe Behaviours, we are changing the way things are done. There is no adult telling us what and how to do. We are taking a different perspective – children and young people are the ones speaking. We want them to be empowered and grow confidence to share their thoughts,” said Maryam.“I was part of the project from the beginning, so I feel like I built it and grew with it. I was there listening to children’s and young people’s voices and now it is on me to amplify them. I want to do it properly. While training care professionals, I have the experience and the power to say: No, children want this and this. I feel confident and fearless.”
When asked about priority actions to address peer violence, Maryam puts child and youth participation first. “Participation is a right and a need. Children want to participate if you just allow them to speak, listen and give them the time they need to open up,” she said.
Meaningful participation and free expression of children’s feelings and thoughts are needed so that adults can understand the reasons and mechanisms behind peer violence, and to create safer environments for and with children and young people.
Children want adults to be responsible
Maryam could relate to what children with care experience shared in their interviews. “As a care leaver, you know what they might feel. Peer violence can affect everyone, but it is true that care experience adds another layer of vulnerability,” she said.
“As you grow up, you realize there are things care professionals should address. Children are stereotyped and discriminated against in schools because of where they come from or because they grow up in care. When they tell a teacher, caregiver or parent that they feel hurt, they often hear: It’s just a joke, it’s a kids’ thing. It happened to me when I was 12, and it keeps happening to other children when I am 25. Children do not have trust in adults, so instead of speaking to them, they go on social media to learn what is right and wrong. What we learned in the scoping phase of “Safe Behaviours” was that children need to be listened to and supported,” Maryam said.
Also, during the scoping phase, a survey for professionals showed that people who care for and work with children often lack the knowledge and skills they need to effectively prevent and respond to peer violence and support children in the way they need to be supported. “Children want adults to be responsible, to be good listeners, role models, to be available and prepared when peer violence happens,” Maryam said.
Twenty-year-old Lordina from France, who also conducted interviews with children and young people, added: "Adults must change the way they react to conflict between children. They are often not patient and just want to find out who the victim is and who is to blame. It should be about much more than that. They need to discover why the bullies do what they do and how it affects the victims. How do both sides feel?”
The resources developed by “Applying Safe Behaviours”, like the key messages and the practice guidance, reflect what children and young people experience, feel and think about peer violence. On top of that, there is a comprehensive online awareness-raising module for adults on the prevention of peer violence with accompanying explainer videos (1, 2, 3).
Over 570 professionals have so far completed face-to-face trainings, which covered topics such as reasons behind peer violence, identifying concerning behaviours, restorative practices, being a positive role model, and more. “Having understood what peer violence is and some of the reasons for it, I will try to support the initiator, not just the target child,” said one of the trainees. Another added: “Information based on young people’s research allowed me to consider perspectives I had not explored before. Simulations in which we tried to take different points of view and get out of the victim/ bully dichotomy were especially important.”
Care professionals can prevent peer violence also by creating opportunities for children to learn and talk about it. The children’s booklet for children aged 8-11 years old and awareness-raising videos for young people aged 16-19 years old (1,2) are useful resources.
The future of “Safe Behaviours”
In July 2023, the project comes to an end, but the training and dissemination of resources developed with and by young people will continue. “Applying Safe Behaviors” started as a cooperation between SOS Children’s Villages in Belgium, France, Italy, Romania and Spain, but there are plans to expand it to influence children, young people and professionals in SOS Children’s Villages’ member associations worldwide.
SOS Children’s Villages’ priority goal is to create environments in which all children and young people feel safe, heard and supported. Addressing peer violence and empowering children through meaningful participation are core elements of the organization’s Safeguarding Action Plan.
During the 2023 General Assembly that brought together member associations from around the world, 28-year-old Marcela, a care leaver who trained professionals in Italy, presented the “Safe Behaviours” approach.
“Training on peer violence should be included in well-structured safeguarding policies everyone in an organization understands and applies. When an incident happens, care professionals need clear protocols on careful intervention that are part of a multisector approach. This approach means that there is an organizational culture and shared knowledge on how to respond to violence. Children, young people and adults live in a community that must work together,” said Marcela on stage of the “Applying Safe Behaviours” final event.
Creating opportunities for children to learn about their rights is key in strengthening safeguarding. Lucas, 20, a care leaver and “Safe Behaviours” participant from France, is a strong advocate for child and youth participation, self-organizing and activism. Lucas said: “Children in alternative care should ask themselves: why don’t we have our own council? And if they don’t know their rights, they should have folders to distribute between themselves. In French schools, we all learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What about the rights of children?”.
“Applying Safe Behaviours” aims to influence not only SOS Children’s Villages and its programmes, but also alternative care, childcare and education systems childcare systems in the member states of the European Union. Building on the project’s key learnings, the young people and the “Safe Behaviours” team prepared a set of policy recommendations which address the areas that require more attention from decision-makers.
The policy recommendations can help protect European children and young people from peer violence and make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal of “Ending All Forms of Violence against Children by 2030”.
During the “Safe Behaviours” final event in Brussels, Member of the European Parliament Caterina Chinnici said: “The child-friendly perspective must be at the center of all EU policies in order to guarantee that the best interest of the child is always taken into consideration. The European Parliament is ready to support all initiatives aimed at eradicating all forms of violence against children. It is a political duty, but most importantly a moral one.”
Finally, “Applying Safe Behaviours” will have a long-term impact on the lives of children and young adults involved and on the people around them. Lordina from France said: “Safe Behaviours will influence my life as well - the way I behave with my brothers, friends, even my future children. I will be more present for them; I will listen more carefully and be more patient, because now I can imagine what they might feel even if they do not share it with me.”
Dana from Romania added: “The project changed me too. I learned that we should always make sure people feel comfortable and safe around us. We should be honest but not harsh, always ask for consent and respect people’s personal space. I learned that communication is key. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, we are all equal. Even if I have better grades than you, even if I am twenty years old and you are five – we are at the same level, we have the same rights, we are both humans”.
Text and photos by Magdalena Sikorska