On Sint Maarten, youth are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their participation and engagement in policy and programs that affect them. Their perspective on topics such as mental health, youth violence, gender-based violence, discrimination of sexual preference, abuse, and neglect can be of indispensable value. Let’s create sustainable and safe spaces for youth to be continuously involved.
Head of the Department of Youth
Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (MECYS)
The importance of meaningful youth participation on St. Maarten is gaining more recognition as Government Ministries and youth stakeholders are increasingly displaying a more structured approach to consulting with youth when developing policy and programs. Youth are also being made more aware of the importance of their participation and engagement in these processes. Activities that involve youth development are also coming to the fore with the goal of enhancing their skills which enable them to collaborate and eventually take the lead in community initiatives or start their own projects and programs as they see fit.
However, where child protection and youth involvement are concerned, much work is still required and breaking social and cultural barriers is paramount. On our island, more attention from adults should be placed on topics such as youth-on-youth violence, gender-based violence, sexual orientation discrimination, abuse, and neglect. This can stimulate the youth to speak out, share their stories and their opinions.
Culturally, children who have been part of the child protection system are not generally empowered to share their experiences and turn their adversity into a positive experience for themselves and others through support group mechanisms that raise awareness on matters that concern them. Furthermore, talking about personal adverse situations stemming from the home environment is stifled due to fear of judgement and shame. Their trust is sometimes broken by the very professionals who were meant to offer protection and a safe environment in the first place.
Encouraging youth to overcome adverse situations and trauma and become “experience experts” can be both rewarding and empowering. It is important to understand however, that having experience in situations does not make one an expert. Becoming an expert calls for the youth in adverse situations to first heal, then amass knowledge of the subject and the system in which they were placed as a protective measure. The National Child Protection Platform will provide the opportunity for youth, including such so-called ‘experience experts’ to be involved in the development of child protection initiatives through the Youth Sounding Board.
Preparing youth to become the experts that are needed to engage other youth in similar situations requires not only that the community embrace such initiatives but more importantly, this calls for the involvement of professionals to promote participation of vulnerable groups by facilitating the recruitment of youth, offering guidance and education on various topics, communicating with the youth, informing them of the latest updates and planning activities, and creating opportunities for them to offer their advice and peer support, thereby creating enthusiasm for others to join.
Lastly, to support such initiatives, collaborations from a governmental level between the Ministries of Justice, Public Health, Social Development and Labor and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth & Sport are key to create sustainable and safe spaces for youth to be continuously involved.
Dr. Henry Charles has been advocating for meaningful youth participation for over forty years. According to him, young people are an asset and should be treated as co-creators in our developmental processes.
“We need to change our deficit perspective of the youth”, Dr. Henry Charles says. He has been advocating for meaningful youth participation for over forty years. What is meaningful youth participation? And why is it imperative to the development of our country?
“Simply put, meaningful youth participation provides quality and equal opportunities for young people to be involved in decision-making on policies, strategies and programmes that affect them. Young people are an asset and should be treated as co-creators in our developmental processes.”
On Sint Maarten, youth are defined as persons up to 24 years old, which is about 35 per cent of the total population. Although the youth make up a third of the citizens in most countries, their right to participate is often not considered in our society’s development processes, Charles says. “In addition to meaningful youth participation being a children’s right, it also matters greatly because of who they are: innovators.”
“Young people have a propensity for creativity and bringing about transformation. So, the question is: why wouldn’t we involve and encourage them to play an active role in our society?”
Throughout history, young people have been in the driver’s seat of change. Charles grew up surrounded by conversations about apartheid, women’s rights, and decolonisation. In many of these movements, it was young people who were at the forefront, he states.
When youth are invited to be involved, this is often at a late stage in the development of programmes and policies. This results in their feedback being too late to have actual influence on the final product. “It is a myth that the development of programmes and policies will take longer when involving the youth”, Charles says. “If you think they will not understand the work at hand, then provide technical support so that they can make an informed contribution. When youth are involved from the inception to completion of an initiative, the result will be more reflective of our society and thus be more effective.”
Henry facilitating a professional development training session for youth development practitioners in Belize
Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation is a notable example of the various levels of participation. Tokenism, decoration, and manipulation, at the bottom of this ladder, are ineffective examples of youth participation. However, they are still often used, Charles says. “For example: youth that are invited for ‘photo-ops’ but do not have actual involvement in an initiative. Or when youth are invited to a discussion, but the platform does not allow for them to safely formulate or share opinions. Or when youth provide input but there is no actual follow-up or integration of this information in the final product.”
“Ideally, we should work towards providing the opportunity for projects and programmes that are initiated by young people and decision-making that is shared between young people and adults. This will empower young people while enabling them to access and learn from the expertise and life experience of adults.
Take, for example, the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). These were developed by the United Nations in collaboration with several development partners, including youth. Then Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, facilitated the active participation of youth in the process. “Indeed, some opine that it is this active engagement of youth in the process which is reflected in the progressive nature of the SDG’s.’’
8. Young people's initiative, decisions made in partnership with adults
7. Young people's initiative and leadership
6. Adults' initiative, joint decisions
5. Adults make decisions, young people are consulted and informed
4. Young people are assigned tasks and informed how and why they are involved in a project
3. Participation for show - young people have little or no influence on their activities
2. Decoration - young people help implement adults' initiatives
1. Manipulation - adults use young people to support their own projects and pretend they are the result of young peoples' inspiration
Youth participation is also essential when you look at child protection matters. “As adults, we can use our expertise, but we are not young people. Involving youth in developing child protection measures helps to make these measures more applicable.”
When we look at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are three broad categories: child protection, survival and development of the child, and a body of rights that speak specifically to participation, Charles explains. “Participation rights are the gateway to improved children’s rights. Without meaningful youth participation, there is a lesser likelihood that children will benefit from the other rights.”
Henry with members of the UWI Socialist Student Conference after delivering a presentation at the third annual Maurice Bishop Memorial Lecture and Reasoning
According to him, we also should consider child protection aspects while we encourage youth participation. For example, various sectors of youth that might need additional support and safety measures to be able to participate such as: females, the LGBTQ+ community and young people with disabilities. Another consideration is the distribution of power within decision-making processes involving the youth. “If youth are enabled to help create policies, this should not be diverted because of political inconvenience.”
Charles sums up some examples of political entities that are supporting youth participation. The recently elected government of Grenada has proposed the appointment of a young person to sit on all parastatal bodies. The Government of Barbados sought to amend the constitution to facilitate the appointment of an 18-year-old to become a member of the Senate (the upper chamber of parliament). “There are also several examples within the European Union and the Council of Europe.”
Young people are not problems to be fixed or ‘broken vessels’ that cost money to be repaired, Charles emphasises. Never mind if young people have challenges, those can be overcome by providing support and enhancing their role. “With the right enabling environment, young people will become valuable strategic partners. This is the shift of culture we must create.”
“Referencing the bible, remember it is written about ‘new wine and old wineskins’; you cannot put new ideas into old mindsets. You cannot get new results with old behaviours. Adults often underestimate or fear the youth. They do not stop to realise that they themselves might be sitting on the brink of irrelevance.”
Young people know more than you think, and by thinking outside of the box, they rescue us from the status quo, Charles says. “Investing in meaningful youth participation means preventing stagnation in our development as a nation and globally.”
Reflecting on the past decades of youth participation, Charles acknowledges
there have been vibrant youth movements that advocate for social economic justice and discussions on independence. “For example, in several Latin American countries, young people were highly involved in protests and other political movements to dismantle dictatorship.”
Young people participated and applied pressure through grassroots movements. Since then, political parties are becoming more and more aware that young people can be a potent force, Charles says. Due to this pressure, incremental changes are happening.
“However, the involvement of youth through government programs or initiatives still remains largely tokenistic, and this will only change if youth are seen as strategic partners to embrace. In turn, youth have to also choose to commit, and perhaps show greater solidarity in the type of participation they want to have moving forward.”
Dr. Henry Wallice Charles started advocating for youth participation and social justice at an early age and is a founding member of The Saint Lucia National Youth Council. Today, Charles is an internationally recognised youth and policy development expert, with over forty years of experience. He is currently working with UNICEF the Netherlands and the Government of Sint Maarten as a Senior Programme Specialist within the Child Resilience and Protection Project.
Angelica Sookdanan and James Brooks help to shape the future Youth Sounding Board. They shifted from hesitation to enthusiasm about the project. “As youth, we can help update policies so that they are more effective.”
The ‘Youth Sounding Board’ would ideally become a mechanism through which youth could participate in a meaningful way in the work done by the National Child Protection Platform (NCPP), a platform to ensure that community-based child protection mechanisms on Sint Maarten are strengthened, to better meet the protection and safety needs of our children in their daily lives. The Youth Sounding Board Members (ages 12 to 24) will provide appropriate guidance, advice, and recommendations (solicited or unsolicited) on relevant matters to the NCPP. They will share their views and ideas regarding the design, development and implementation of policies and programmes created for the safety and wellbeing of children, young people, and families on Sint Maarten (see info box below).
However, the first step was to figure out: do Sint Maarten’s youth see the value of a mechanism such as a Youth Sounding Board? And if yes, how do they envision the establishment and workings of the Youth Sounding Board? Angelica Sookdanan (25) and James Brooks (21) were two of the twenty-five youths who participated in youth focus groups to answer these questions. They also volunteered their time to write the Terms of Reference and Code of Conduct to help actualise the Youth Sounding Board. The documents they wrote are now with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport to be officially approved as part of the formal establishment of the National Child Protection Platform.
Angelica: “Including youth in conversations and decision-making that affects them.”
James: “I believe that it also means that we, as youth, take action in our community to make a positive impact and pave the way for the next generation.”
James: “I was invited to attend a focus group. At first, I wondered if this initiative would be another ‘front’, an initiative to act as if youth are involved, but, in actuality, our opinion will not matter. During the focus groups, we spoke about topics such as youth crime and offenders, educational opportunities for people in lower economic households, and youth transitioning to adulthood from foster care. I soon began thinking: ‘Hey, this might work!’”
Angelica: “I had a similar feeling. Some activities seem to be youth-led, but in reality, they are adult-led ideas executed by youth. Our focus group conversations dove into child protection and how to actualise a Youth Sounding Board. Now I do feel that the Youth Sounding Board has the potential to take a step forward in creating youth-relevant policies. Therefore, I also volunteered to help with the terms of reference to help establish it.”
Angelica: “A collaborative setting in which youth are empowered to make final decisions, but with technical support of adults to help them make informed choices. This means providing them with the right information and, when it involves complex matters, adding the necessary explanation.”
James: “Something else to consider is that youth might have difficulty expressing themselves fully, with adults in the room.”
James: “A group of us volunteered to help shape the functioning of the Youth Sounding Board and its members. UNICEF the Netherlands, through Mr. Wilson, a Youth Participation Specialist, provided us with technical support.”
Angelica: “We worked together to outline the framework on how the Youth Sounding Board and its meetings would work, what regulations and provisions will have to be in place, and how the youth members will be selected and supported. I enjoyed being part of this process, and I think we did a good job!”
James: “The Terms of Reference are approved by the Transition Child Protection Working Group and are now in the process, along with the NCPP documentation, of being officially approved by the government. The incoming members will also review these terms and amend them accordingly to keep them current.”
Angelica: “I think the Youth Sounding Board will be well received and generate a lot of interest amongst youth once implemented. Being a member will be empowering in that you can say: ‘I had an influence on this policy.’ It is also a great addition to your resume.”
James: “Imagine influencing and updating policies based on our own experiences and current situations. You will help make a real difference for your peers, and it will help you gain confidence in yourself and your country.”
The Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) is an inter-ministerial group, with representatives from the Ministries of Justice, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (ECYS) and Public Health, Social Development and Labour (VSA). Since 2019, the CPWG has been on a mission to establish a permanent inter-ministerial child protection coordination platform: The National Child Protection Platform (NCPP). The goal of the NCPP is to ensure that the formal and informal community-based child protection mechanisms on Sint Maarten are strengthened, to better meet the protection and safety needs of children in their daily lives, as well as before, during and after an emergency.
Angelica is passionate about youth empowerment. She grew up on Sint Maarten volunteering during her teens for programmes such as Readers are Leaders and Vision of the Youth. She is currently a student at the University of Guyana studying Architecture and works during the afternoons at the St. Maarten Academy Afternoon School as a teacher.
James regularly volunteers for community initiatives on Sint Maarten. His personal experience within the foster care system has fuelled his motivation to study psychology and invest in improving child-care systems. He will be starting his bachelor's in psychology in the Netherlands in the summer of 2022.
How do you ensure that young people really have an influence on policy? The Flower of Participation gives insight.
To be able to play an informed and effective role in programs and activities, young people should have the opportunity to grow their knowledge, skills and critical self-reflection. This can be done, for example, through training, workshops, internships or coaching or providing mentorship. The learning environment should be a safe space, where making mistakes is considered to be part of the process.
Inclusivity should be integrated in all elements of meaningful youth participation. It is important that MYP is happening in an inclusive manner, to involve young people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, living with disabilities, and from different socio-economic backgrounds.
An enabling environment consists of six factors: commitment from adults, policies, a safe space, financial means, youth friendliness and flexibility, Young people should be supported by adults to enable meaningful participation. They should be treated as equals and allowed to take up meaningful positions. They should be able to understand what is discussed and feel comfortable being involved.
Adults are primarily in charge of the program, activity or organisation, but they include young people. It is the adults who have the final say. Young people are fully informed about the aims of the program or activity, and have a voice in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. They enjoy certain decision-making power and responsibility.
Young people oversee the program or activity, but they include adults who also have a say. This is often the case when young people lack expertise or experience, and ask adults to participate for learning purposes and to enhance the quality of the program, activity or organisation. Ultimately, young people are in charge, but they share decision-making power with adults.
Both young people and adults are equally involved and share power. They enjoy equal voice, and define the aims of the program or activity together. Decision-making power for young people is slightly less present than in a youth-led initiative, because they share it with adults. A YAP involves mutual learning, as adults can strengthen the capacity of young people and vice versa.
Young people are fully in charge. They enjoy the maximum level of decision-making power, information, voice and responsibility. Support may be limited, since young people are usually on their own. Sometimes, adults are consulted and invited for capacity strengthening. Youth-led organisations can usually be placed in this category.
Young people are asked for their input and their opinion is considered. They are informed about the goals of the program or activity and what will be done with their input. Suggestions made by them are given thorough consideration. Yet, they don’t make the final decision as to whether their input is incorporated, they don’t enjoy any decision-making power on the design, implementation and evaluation.
Do young people have the opportunity to act independently within the program, activity or organisation that they participate in?
Someone asks young people to do a task, and they can decide if they want to participate or not. Moreover, they are informed about the goals, about their role in it and why they have been invited to participate. They do not hold any decision-making power, and have a limited voice and responsibility. The freedom of choice, information, voice and responsibility can vary considerably.
This happens when young people are used to help or ‘bolster’ a cause in a relatively indirect way, although adults do not pretend that the cause is inspired by young people.
Young people are invited to participate in a superficial manner because in reality, they don’t have a voice and their opinions are not listened to or respected. There is no space for them to participate on an equal footing, and they don’t carry any decision-making power or responsibility. Young people do enjoy some freedom of choice.
Young people are used as decoration, to make the cause seem more attractive. Participating young people are not in control of the activity, cannot give their opinion on the activity or the cause, and don’t enjoy any responsibility.
Do young people have access to comprehensive information about the goals, different elements and timeline of the program, activity or organisation, and their role within it? Is there information about the different possibilities or opportunities that young people have in this regard?
Can a young person decide freely to participate, or not, in a program, activity or organisation?
Do young people have the opportunity to act independently within the program, activity or organisation that they participate in?
Can a young person make decisions about the program, activity or within the organisation?
Can a young person voice his or her views and opinions, and to what extent do other people listen to and respect these views and opinions and integrate them into the program, activity or organisation?
Soil; core elements of meaningful youth participation (MYP). The stronger and more present the core elements are, the more MYP can flourish.
Inspired by The Flower of Participation (www.choiceforyouth.org)
Watch the short video made by Choice for Youth here:
Rahul Sharma (23) recently finalised his Master's in Media and Creative Industries at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Rahul chose to focus his thesis on Ballroom representation in the media after realising that "very little research is being done on the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Stop acting like a girl, don’t be a faggot, just be a man!”, were some of the phrases I remember hearing growing up on Sint Maarten. Growing up on the island, my peers and the adults around me talked about queer people in a negative way. Not just hurtful words, but violent actions were also used against people who were open about being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
I think this led me, unconsciously at first, to hide my feminine side. I was 'straight' all through high school. At a younger age, I didn't think too deeply about my sexuality, and once I knew that I was queer, I pretended to be straight, or at least pass as straight. To avoid being bullied or treated differently, I would try to fit in, such as with my hyper-masculine male classmates.
It was only during my senior year, when I made a queer friend, that I felt I had someone to talk to about my sexuality. I love my family but sharing your thoughts with people you think might not understand you is hard. Very recently I spoke to my mom about this. She tries to understand and be respectful. I try to help her understand queer culture and history by sending her documentaries or articles to read.
Now that I have moved abroad to study in the Netherlands, I can meet more people from the LGBTQ+ community and explore who I am. I’m not saying that the Netherlands is perfect in its inclusivity. I still wear my jacket travelling in certain areas when I am dressed differently than others, to be seen as ‘acceptable for a man’. But there are many more activities and venues catering to people of all spectrums of gender and sexual orientation. For example, the Ballroom community has helped me express myself creatively.
On Sint Maarten, we do not have such activities, and persons of the LGBTQ+ community have to figure out where it is ‘safe’ to go out, have fun, and be able to show affection in public. Because of this, I think it’s hard for young people to explore their sexuality and relationships safely.
The only place I could do this when I was younger was through apps such as Grindr and Snapchat. Due to the secret nature of these apps and the ‘down-low’ interactions, it tends to focus more on sex than actually learning how to have a healthy romantic relationship. In addition, it can lead to unsafe situations such as anonymously meeting someone in private for the first time, instead of in public as one should.
Education and wider communication on the island are based on the premise that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of love and sexuality. It can be pretty lonely for young people who feel that they have no one to talk to.
To help young people safely express themselves and their sexuality, we can start by making our education system more inclusive. For example, when schools roll out curriculum about sexual health; same-sex interactions, protective measures, and LGBTQ+ relationships should be part of this.
Every person should have the right to be who they are and feel safe doing so. I would consider moving back to Sint Maarten and contributing to my community, but not at the cost of being a ‘fake’ version of myself. I deserve to be my most authentic self.
Rahul goes by Pretty Boi 007 in the Ballroom Scene and hopes to inspire other young queer people, especially from the island, who struggle with their identities.
‘MY Participation Matters’ was the theme of the Sint Maarten Youth Roundtable Conference. The event was very inspiring to all participating young people.
The Sint Maarten Youth Roundtable Conference, under the theme ‘MY Participation Matters’, was successfully held on March 3, 2022. (MY is also short for the first two words of Meaningful Youth Participation, of course.) The virtual event featured an all-youth cast of dynamic speakers, presenters, and performers from Sint Maarten.
The Department of Youth, in collaboration with UNICEF the Netherlands, hosted the event virtually. This was due to the high number of active Covid-19 cases at that time. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the event was well attended. In addition to being live streamed to the public, an estimated 200 registered students participated through ‘virtual satellite locations’, set up at eight participating secondary schools. Students could share their opinions and feedback through quizzes and messaging applications.
The conference is part of the Department of Youth’s efforts to promote youth participation and develop a youth mainstreaming strategy for the government apparatus, in general. Ideally, this will eventually lead to institutionalised systems through which youth can influence policies and programs that affect them.
“Sometimes people tell you, but others might be shy or ‘proud’. It is important to listen and look. This is especially true when children are involved. Instead of asking for help, they might act out or the opposite – be very quiet. We also look at what they bring to school. A child might be bringing snacks to school, but it is just a packet of cookies. This will prompt us to start providing them with meals and check up on their home situation.”
Young people shared their opinions during the conference via messaging apps and quizzes. “Inspirational!”, many commented during Ralph Cantave’s keynote speech when he said: “The first and most important step to making your contribution matter is challenging yourself into believing and knowing that you matter as an individual, a student, as a citizen of Sint Maarten.”
Students made comments seen live on screen. A selection:
Popular DJ and dancer BB Bad kicked off the Conference. Other young performers such as Kenyo Baly, Jabz York, and comedian Sjoerd Scott kept viewers entertained. Youth cheered them on by sending positive messages.
Harsha Parchani addressed not feeling supported by the government in her educational journey as a young person in Sint Maarten. She encouraged youth to “not be afraid of failure and share their unique perspectives as Sint Maarteners.” Her empowering speech had students cheering in their seats.
Jamie Lynch, Shaneisha Robinson, Ralph Cantave and Carla Vlaun (not pictured) shared views through a youth panel. They discussed the current needs of the youth and emphasised the importance of continuous follow-up on activities by institutions such as the government, to ensure effective youth engagement.
The Youth Roundtable Conference was made possible by the all-youth cast of dynamic speakers, presenters, and performers as well as the Sint Maarten and Digital Event Specialist PWR Agency. The event was organised by the Department of Youth, in collaboration with UNICEF the Netherlands as part of the Child Resilience and Protection Project.
Alex, a child with disabilities, was sexually abused at school twice. Neither the school nor police intervened. Her parents are warning professionals working with differently-abled children to always be mindful.
‘‘It was a long time before we were blessed with our child, Alex. The pregnancy was difficult and complicated, but we loved our unborn child. When Alex was born with special needs there were challenges to overcome, but with the help of research, we were determined to ensure that she could participate in activities like her peers.
There are no educational facilities that are suitably equipped to guide children with intellectual disabilities such as Alex. Because of this, she has changed schools nine times to date. This is due, in part, to schools not having appropriate tools and staff, such as teachers who are specifically qualified to teach children with intellectual disabilities.
The first step towards positive change is the willingness of people within the education sector and the wider community to put in the effort to include people with disabilities. This does not always require extra materials or money, just kindness and creativity.
People tend to underestimate people like Alex. You might have to explain things a bit more slowly or more often, but with patience, Alex has been able to achieve academic success and participate in several different sports and after-school activities. We are grateful for the few educational interactive programs that try to include her.
Unfortunately, Alex has suffered abuse on two separate occasions during school hours, mainly due to the neglect of the adults tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of children under their care. When Alex was nine years old, another student sexually assaulted her in the bathroom. The students’ bathrooms were in a deplorable state, and certain areas were dark and out of sight. An adult should have accompanied younger students to the toilet; however, this did not happen. There was a rule in place that boys and girls were not allowed in the bathrooms simultaneously. However, this was clearly not enforced. It was an unsafe situation, and because teachers were neglectful, this incident occurred.
The aftermath only made things worse. When the incident was reported, Alex was not believed nor was she offered adequate professional guidance and we were not immediately notified. The school did not inform us about the abuse until the end of the school day, so Alex initially had to deal with this trauma without the loving support from her parents.
After our many requests to discuss the incident, the school management told us that the teachers did not believe Alex and such a happening was not possible, despite Alex’s ability to clearly identify the student that did this to her. The bathroom situation was also not improved despite our recommendations. We spoke to the Education Department, left our contact info at the time, but no one contacted us, and nothing was done. We felt that everyone preferred to cover up the sexual abuse instead of doing the work to prevent another incident.
We went to the police station to make a report, which was a very unsupportive and further traumatising experience. The police demanded to talk to our child alone, which was difficult because of her age and disability. It was obvious that the officers were not trained to interview children with disabilities. Despite our numerous follow-ups, to this date we have not received any updates or additional information about the case from the police. We feel that the report at the police station and hospital were a waste of our time, and this remains an open case for us.
Alex was assaulted for a second time a few years later, again due to the lack of supervision of teachers. Once more, we felt that the institutions that are responsible to protect children were not willing or able to assist.
We have coped with these abuses by focusing on what we can do together as a family. Together with friends and professional assistance we continue to help Alex process and heal from these traumatic events. After Alex was abused the first time, her behaviour changed negatively. Alex became aggressive with her toys and began to self-harm. Years later, Alex is still dealing with a great deal of mental and physical stress, causing concentration and stomach issues.
To protect Alex, we have set strict rules whilst still encouraging her to participate in school and other activities. We teach her to be more aware and how to recognise and avoid dangerous situations, such as never being alone during school hours. Alex is also not allowed to take off her clothes to change whilst in school or for other activities. She is not allowed to go to the bathroom alone under any circumstances and has been taught about body parts and boundaries.
All children are vulnerable and need to be protected from abuse. Children with disabilities can be even more susceptible to abuse as they might face more challenges processing violence and verbally or physically saying no. Due to our experiences, we feel that children’s rights, and especially the rights of children with disabilities, are not being enforced on Sint Maarten.
We implore professionals who work with children to be always mindful during their work. You can make all the difference – one moment of neglect can lead to lifelong consequences.’’
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy and identity of the minor and others involved. The persons on the photo's are models.
How can you engage young people more meaningfully in your work? Lenworth Wilson, who has been working in youth development on Sint Maarten for over fifteen years, shares his insights.
As a professional who works with or for the youth, you might already engage young people in your work. Agencies like the United Nations, or locally, our Department of Youth, are also taking steps to recognise and involve youth as partners, stakeholders, and change-makers in their work.
However, this is not always as simple as it sounds. To engage young people in a meaningful way, several participation principles are important. If these are not taken into account, youth participation can become ‘tokenistic’. This term is used for actions that, on the surface, appear to involve youth, but in reality, young people had no genuine involvement or impact on the development or execution.
Whatever the earliest phase of planning is, before you write or approve a plan or policy, get young people involved in the process. You can start by consulting young people on your ideas and requesting their input. Involving youth from start to finish also ensures that the product you create is relevant to them, and thus more effective.
This might stem from the assumption that if you give young people a choice, they will choose not to get involved. We often want youth to engage in a specific way, which might not speak to all groups of youth. Young people are individuals that differ in their interests and in the ways that they choose to participate.
Often it is easiest to engage youth who are already involved through youth groups or excelling in school; however, this level of participation is not representative of the views of all youth. There are always students in class that ‘raise their hand’ but others might not do so for a range of factors. They are not lazy or uninterested, they just might think: “participating is not for me”, due to, for example, the environment in which they grew up. Youth of diverse backgrounds and characteristics need different support and outlets to enable their participation.
You should view youth as individuals who can make good decisions for themselves and others. How a young person views the future and what is in their best interest might differ from your own views as an adult. The things that you value, your views, and your future prospects at middle age are different than they were as an adolescent. This does not mean that young people are always right, but their perspectives should be seen as valid.
Do not try selling what you do not have – as this can cause disappointment. For example, when involving youth in policy work, explain clearly that these processes can take a long time and may not have a quick, visible impact. Do not give the impression that ‘big or quick changes’ will happen due to their involvement. Explain to the youth involved that their contributions are valuable and be honest with them when (or if) tangible results will come to fruition.
In Sint Maarten and the wider Caribbean region, we are familiar with the phrase: children should be seen, not heard. Worldwide, children are often seen as 'helpless beneficiaries'. The general concept of youth participation is relatively new, so we cannot assume that everyone is on the same page. It is essential to sensitise professionals (especially duty-bearing decision-makers) to value and adopt the principles of meaningful youth engagement.
Invest in youth through youth-friendly environments, structures, and materials, that can enable youth to grow their skills and support their meaningful participation. Do not assume that the usual processes which you have been following are sufficient to meaningfully engage the youth. Pay special attention to the capacity needs of traditionally underserved youth, such as those with less access to education, from low-income households, or with disabilities and learning challenges.
Young people don’t always come from households where their thoughts or opinions are valued. Some still have to learn to be comfortable expressing themselves. When having conversations with youth, remember that you should not 'lead' them in a specific direction to match your views as an adult. In addition, make sure that you follow safeguarding procedures and child protection rights for youth under the age of 18.
Suppose you are supporting youth engagement in your organisation. In that case, you might also have to have some uncomfortable discussions with decision-makers who, due to personal, cultural, political, economic, or other reasons, prefer not to act on the input given by youth. As a professional promoting youth participation, you have the responsibility to advocate for and champion meaningful youth engagement, when others might be reluctant to support their participation.
Lenworth Wilson has been working in youth development on Sint Maarten for over fifteen years. He is currently working as the Adolescent Development and Participation Specialist for UNICEF the Netherlands, on Sint Maarten. Which do’s and don’ts should professionals keep in mind to engage the youth more meaningfully in their work?
In May 2019, UNICEF the Netherlands and Augeo Foundation together did an analysis on child abuse and neglect on Sint Maarten. Thirty professionals working in the field of Child Protection were interviewed. Based on the outcome of the dialogues with these professionals, UNICEF the Netherlands, Augeo Foundation and the Child Protection Working Group decided to publish a magazine to share knowledge, experiences and best practices among professionals working with children and the general public. This magazine is produced in collaboration with the Government of Sint Maarten, financed by the Government of the Netherlands, through the Sint Maarten Trust Fund, as part of the Child Resilience and Protection Project (CRPP).
Augeo Foundation believes that children should grow up safely and with love. That is why we work together with professionals, policymakers and volunteers to tackle child abuse and domestic violence as quickly and effectively as possible. If more people see what they can do for a child, we can make a difference for a child’s future. With online training, an online magazine and experiences from the Youth Taskforce we empower professionals. We organize support for children and together with municipalities, we conduct research into tackling child abuse in the Netherlands. Augeo Foundation is a non-profit foundation based in the Netherlands that is funded by donations from family assets. We use this independent position to actively implement pioneering improvements and address bottlenecks.
UNICEF the Netherlands supports the government of Sint Maarten in the aspiration to improve the recognition and reporting of child abuse and neglect (CAN), as hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) exacerbated the pre-existing challenges. UNICEF the Netherlands’ Child Resilience and Protection Project in Sint Maarten is funded by the Sint Maarten Resilience and Rebuilding Trust Fund, managed by the World Bank. UNICEF the Netherlands engages in a partnership with Augeo Foundation. Augeo Foundation offers technical support.