The CREAN Conference on Children’s Rights to Non-Discrimination

The 2nd CREAN Conference, entitled “Children’s Rights to Non-Discrimination” took place in Vilnius, Lithuania on 4th and 5th December 2014. It was organised by the Siauliai University and the Mykolas Romeris University, two partners of the Children’s Rights Erasmus Academic Network (CREAN), and was held at the Lithuanian Parliament in Vilnius.

As it has always been one of the objectives of the CREAN network to include students and young researchers in their activities, it offered scholarships and actively invited students to contribute to the conference. After having taken part in the two-week CREAN Summer Workshop in Braga, Portugal already, I was happy for the opportunity to attend this conference as well. Since the workshop in summer had dealt with the same topic (but focusing more on practical skills), I expected the conference to be a valuable completion in providing the scientific input to the issue of discrimination against children.

The CREAN Conference on Children’s Rights to Non-Discrimination

Following a brief opening ceremony, the first part of the plenary session of the conference gave an overview of the situation in Lithuania regarding children’s rights and their implementation. Whilst Ms. Rimantė Šalaševičiūtė (Minister of Health) and Dr. Natalja Istomina (Vice-Minister of Ministry of Education and Science) informed us about their efforts to strengthen the rights and well-being of children in the health and education sector respectively, the Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights (Dr. Edita Žiobienė) reminded us that the perception of children as rights-holders and full members of society has still not found its way into the mindsets of far too many people in Lithuania.

After a short coffee break, the plenary session was continued with a lecture by Prof. Dr. Wouter Vandenhole examining the theme of the conference from a legal point of view. Being a lawyer myself and thus sharing a similar perspective (or at least starting point) in how to approach issues of non-discrimination, the presentation provided me with an interesting update on the latest developments and case-law by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on age-based discrimination. Finally, the session was concluded by a lecture from Prof. Dr. Maria Roth on the issue of discrimination against Roma children in Romania.

In the afternoon, the conference participants were spoilt for choice as one could choose between six different workshops to attend. I opted for the session “Research” and was looking forward to gaining valuable insights into the works of fellow young researchers, as well as renowned experts in the field. However, due to miscalculations in the organisational set-up and the ensuing time constraints, most of the speakers were prevented from giving their presentations as planned. The limited time frame for each presentation made a fruitful discussion impossible, and led to some frustration amongst the lecturers as well as the attendants. Nonetheless, one of the presentations that I found particularly interesting was given by Ms. Yousra Benfquih, an early stage Ph.D. candidate. Her speech explored religious diversity at educational institutions. Ms. Benfquih drew our attention to the everyday struggles experienced by schools and other educational institutions which are called upon to respect the religious rights of increasingly diverse groups of children. In order to ensure substantive equality, legislators will be challenged to draft a legal framework that takes into account these developments, and thus helps to create a non-discriminatory environment for each and every child.

The second day of the conference started with the launch and distribution of “Children and Non-Discrimination”, an interdisciplinary textbook published by CREAN as one of their projects. Following this, the speakers of Friday’s plenary session mainly focused on highlighting the major challenges in the fields of legislation and implementation of children’s rights. Prof. Dr. Manfred Liebel additionally raised the topic of “adultism” and drew our attention to the difficulties in finding a non-discriminatory approach to involve children in decision-making processes.

Following the rather disappointing research session the day before, I decided to attend a “Specialty Workshop” on Friday, with only two presentations scheduled. The first presentation was given by Ms. Merit Lage, member of the Estonian Union of Child Welfare, who introduced a toolkit suitcase used in kindergartens and primary schools in order to prevent bullying. After having explained the core concepts and approaches underlying the toolkit, Ms. Lage presented us the suitcase and showed us how the tools can be used in practice. The idea is to create a culture of tolerance amongst children themselves, but also in relation to the teachers and parents involved. Although statistics of the impact of the project were not shown at the conference, it seems to be a very promising tool in order to combat bullying from an early age. Therefore it can only be hoped that this or similar projects will be taken up by more states in the near future.

The second part of the afternoon session was led by Mr. Andrey Makhanko, who dealt with the issue of boys as victims of sexual abuse. Being from Belarus himself, he depicted a case of child sexual abuse in his country with over 10,000 boy victims, unveiled in 2013. Besides presenting one specific case, Mr. Makhanko highlighted that boys do not suffer from sexual abuse less than girls, and that they often struggle even more with issues of stigmatisation and access to psychological support, especially in patriarchal countries. Apart from the seriousness of the topic per se, we were also reminded that the Belarusian society is deeply affected by the isolation of its country from the rest of Europe, which is why Mr. Makhanko was very grateful for the opportunity to have his case heard at the conference.

After the intensive round of workshops, the participants gathered once more in the conference hall of the Parliament in order to listen to the conclusions drawn from the respective workshops, followed by the closing ceremony conducted by Prof. Dr. Karl Hanson.

Overall, I experienced the conference as a great opportunity to exchange ideas and to learn about the issue of children and non-discrimination in a very diverse and interdisciplinary manner. Despite some organisational shortcomings, the conference was both an inspiration and a motivation to work in the field of children’s rights and to continue efforts in order to ensure that children are perceived as active agents within society, who should be duly informed about their rights and be included in decision-making processes whenever their rights are affected. Moreover, the intercultural exchange and the insights given in how other countries approach the issue of non-discrimination against children once again widened my perspective and encouraged me to reflect on my own perceptions.

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