Marta Santos Pais: Working Toward Zero Violence Against Children

The UN Social 500 is honoured to have had the chance to talk to Marta Santo Pais, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children. She talked about her careers, including her involvement in drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and her experience working to represent children who has experienced violence. She also gave an insight into how she uses social media to make her voice heard on hard-hitting issues.

Emily Robinson: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Marta Santos Pais: I have been privileged to work on children’s rights and human rights for more than 30 years, first as a lawyer in my country, and since the 80’s with the United Nations and regional intergovernmental processes.

A key moment of that process was my participation in the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Adopted in 1989, after ten long years of negotiation, the Convention has become the most widely ratified treaty in UN history and remains a critical reference for the protection of all children from violence, abuse, and exploitation. As Rapporteur of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Vice-Chair of the Coordinating Committee on Childhood Policies of the Council of Europe, I had the opportunity to promote the dissemination of the Convention and its implementation in all countries across regions.

During my several years of work with UNICEF, as Director of Evaluation, Policy and Planning and as Director of UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, I gained a unique knowledge about the critical work promoted on the ground by governments, national institutions, civil society and so many other partners, including young people themselves, to translate the values and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into reality for all children. And, I was also confronted with the pervasive nature and dramatic impact of violence on children’s lives – in schools, care institutions, detention centres, as well as in their communities and sadly also within their homes. Preventing and addressing this phenomenon has therefore been a steady priority for my work.

Emily Robinson: What was your first job?

Marta Santos Pais: As a young lawyer, I was an adviser to the Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in my country, Portugal. I worked on issues associated with the legal and policy reforms that followed the adoption of a democratic constitution that recognized the primary role of international human rights law and led to the establishment of a child and gender-sensitive policy framework and the development of a social protection system supporting children and families in the country.

This was a very exciting period during which structural changes were introduced in the policy agenda which resulted in positive impacts for all members of society in Portugal, including for children, which made it especially rewarding and satisfying. This experience and my personal commitment to human rights law resulted in a diverse series of subsequent positions, within Portugal, with the Council of Europe and with the United Nations, that eventually led me to my current position as UN SRSG on Violence against Children.    

Emily Robinson: How did you get involved in preventing violence against children?

Marta Santos Pais: In fact, this has been a life-long passion of mine. My father was a writer and a judge for children, and my mother was a teacher. So, children’s issues were very much part of my upbringing within my family. Respect, solidarity, and fairness were some of the values nurtured in my home. My parents empowered me by encouraging me to stand up for my beliefs and follow my inspiration. Reaching out to less fortunate children always felt natural to me, even as a child.

While growing up, I decided that I wanted to join others who were already on a fantastic life-long journey – people who were working towards a happy childhood for all children. As a teenager, I thought the best way I could make an impact was to become a human rights lawyer, with a focus on children’s rights.

In my work in Portugal, and with the Council of Europe and other intergovernmental organizations, as well as a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and in different positions within UNICEF, preventing and eliminating violence against children have been steady concerns. Today, as UN SRSG on Violence against Children, I remain strongly committed to [bringing] the plight of violence against children to an end, acting as an independent, global advocate and a bridge-builder amongst countries, institutions and disciplines to transform violence from a concern of a few into a priority for all.

Emily Robinson: You might easily be considered as one of the leading voices in your area, can you tell us about the steps you took to get to where you are today?

I feel that defending children’s rights […] is a passion that has been with me since I was a child. 

Marta Santos Pais: I feel that defending children’s rights, including their right to live a life free from violence, is a passion that has been with me since I was a child. This carried through as a key area of interest when I became a lawyer and it continues to this day.

A few career highlights may be helpful to give a sense of the diverse opportunities and progressive steps I have taken along the way.

I was a member of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Drafting Group and also participated in the development of other key human rights treaties where the prevention and elimination of violence against children and other groups in society has been a key concern. These offered me a unique opportunity to learn about and bridge different legal systems, cultural and social approaches to uphold public policies that safeguard children’s human rights, including their protection from violence and abuse. This truly gave me deep, rich exposure to, and understanding of, these complex issues from both global and national perspectives.

I also participated in the work of expert groups of the Council of Europe on human rights, childhood policies, legal affairs and judicial cooperation where I am thankful to have had the golden opportunity to learn about the most positive experiences to safeguard the rights of children and to prevent and respond to incidents of violence.

In various posts, I have also had the privilege of working in cooperation with civil society and child-led organizations, and of working in various countries in the field which provided me the opportunity to learn first-hand from children about their experiences, views and aspirations, but also about their unique and key role in being able to promote effective solutions to the challenges they face.

I have served as a researcher on children’s rights and children’s legal protection, which helped me to further consolidate my knowledge experience, and strengthen understanding and evidence about the magnitude of violence against children, its impact on the enjoyment of children’s rights and effective strategies to prevent its occurrence and to support children’s resilience, recovery and reintegration.

Finally, my work with UNICEF in strategic positions provided me with opportunities to support country-tailored implementation initiatives to promote the realisation of children’s rights and ensure children’s protection from violence, including the promotion of advocacy, legal and policy reforms, institutional building and monitoring and evaluation initiatives, and the strengthening of strategic partnerships to advance progress in this field.

All of these opportunities have contributed to my understanding of the different underlying causes of violence against children and to the vast array of solutions that can be implemented in our collective efforts to end violence against children. I am grateful for each one of them and am heartened and encouraged by the global commitment to the 2030 Agenda which calls for ‘a world which invests in its children and in which every child grow up free from violence and exploitation’.

Emily Robinson: Is there one defining moment of your career so far that you hold particularly close to your heart? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Marta Santos Pais: Certainly my work as the SRSG-VAC is most close to my heart right now, both because of the urgency of this cause and the opportunity the world has to achieve progress and ensure that children, all children, are protected as a zone of peace.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has become the most widely ratified UN treaty in history.

But I’d like to highlight what has not only been a defining moment of my career but has truly been a defining moment in history: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I consider myself particularly fortunate to have participated in the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  I was privileged to contribute to this challenging and complex process during the divisive times of the Cold War, a process which involved countries around the world, all of which had different legal systems, cultural perspectives and approaches. Building trust and promoting cooperation across different countries and outlooks was essential to all nations joining hands and working together to develop a charter on the human rights of children that remains relevant to this day across regions, cultures, political regimes and religions.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child has become the most widely ratified UN treaty in history, through a uniquely rich process of both development and implementation. The Convention has also generated a decisively important process of social change for the benefit of children, everywhere.

Emily Robinson: What kind of work does your current role involve?

Marta Santos Pais: As Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, I serve as a high level global independent advocate, promoting the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children in all settings, within and across borders, including in care and justice institutions, in schools, within the home, in the workplace, online and in the community.

I act as a bridge-builder in all regions, and across sectors and settings where violence against children may occur. I am committed to mobilizing action and political support to advance progress on this issue, which requires diverse actions and initiatives. These include:

  • engaging with Member States to ensure that violence against children is a priority issue to be addressed within the framework of the 2030 Agenda;
  • advocating and supporting necessary policy and legislative changes, in favor of the protection of children and those which bring perpetrators of violence to justice;
  • engaging across the UN System, inter-government bodies, regional organizations, civil society organizations and the public to drive achievement of SDG 16.2 – to end all forms of violence against children;
  • supporting regional organizations and national authorities to develop and implement national plans of action to prevent violence against children and to care for child victims of violence;
  • encouraging better research and data on the issue, and sharing good child protection practices;
  • raising awareness of decision-makers and the general public about the pervasive, changing nature of violence against children so that they will demand the change that is necessary to end all forms of violence against children.

We are making progress in all of these areas, though much work needs to be done. Our social media platforms are a critical component of our efforts to accelerate progress and advance towards a world free from violence for all children.  

Emily Robinson: What issues are you most passionate about?

Marta Santos Pais: My most passionate issue can be answered in four words: Ending Violence Against Children. In my role as SRSG I see both the worst and the best of humankind. The worst is certainly all the ways countless children are exposed to physical, psychological and sexual violence, often in a pervasive, hidden, and sometimes socially condoned manner.

However, I am fortunate that my mandate also exposes me to the very best of humankind and the best comes, perhaps not surprisingly, from children themselves. They not only inspire me on a daily basis, but their hope for a better future continues to fuel my passion to end violence against children.

Time and again I meet child victims emerging from the worst of nightmares and yet they remain resilient, confident, generous and show us, adults, the way ahead.

Time and again I meet child victims emerging from the worst of nightmares and yet they remain resilient, confident, generous and show us, adults, the way ahead. They inspire us to build – with and for them – a world free from violence, they empower each other to be the first line of protection from the risk of abuse and exploitation, and they work as young advocates with partners at all levels to raise awareness of the detrimental impact of violence and to provide solutions that they know will be effective. Even in the most desperate of situations, these children show hope for a better world and prove their determination to achieving lasting change.

They truly are an inspiration to us all, and they deserve all our protection, support, and respect for what they have been through, and for their inspiring efforts to create a world free from violence for children.

Emily Robinson: You were at the top of the UNSocial500 leaderboard for several months! What are your top tips for making the most of social media?

Marta Santos Pais: I am truly humbled and honored to be a leading social media influencer across the UN System, particularly given the excellent social media work done by so many colleagues at different levels of the organization. Everyone who is communicating the work of the UN through their social media is a leader in my view!  My top three tips would be: focus, engage, compel. 

Focus, engage, compel.

First, my main social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Website – are all focused on preventing and addressing violence against children. This way, people who engage with my social media know they will get a combination of the latest substantive content – conveyed in a way that touches the heart – on efforts taking place around the world to address violence against children.

Second, while the issue of violence against children is focused, a key engagement factor is that there are – tragically – so many different components to it: sexual exploitation; online violence; neglect; corporal punishment; prevention of violence in early childhood; peer violence and bullying in schools; gang violence in communities; harassment and abuse of migrant and refugee children, etc. Addressing these diverse components helps to keep people engaged and interested.

Third, the content needs to be compelling to encourage and inspire people to support efforts to achieve change. The 2030 Agenda and its SDG 16.2: to end all forms of violence against children offers a unique opportunity to re-ignite commitments and mobilize accelerated progress. Compelling content is achieved with children’s voices, sound evidence and facts, latest developments, compelling photos, info-graphics.

The issue of violence against children is a ‘heavy’ one, so we weave in messages, facts and images that show tangible progress and give real reasons for hope that together we can eliminate violence against children. By doing so, more people are compelled to share and amplify our social media content, thereby bringing others on board to support this important cause.

Emily Robinson: Why did you decide to become a member of the leaderboard, and how do you feel you have benefited from it?

Marta Santos Pais: First of all, my warm congratulations on the UNSocial500 leaderboard. This is an excellent initiative that really encourages UN staff members to use their social media platforms to promote the diverse, complex and important work which we are trying to address, whether it be climate change, poverty reduction, global hunger, violence against children or any of the myriad issues with which UN staff are engaged on a daily basis.  

The UNSocial500 platform is also an effective means of helping to connect staff members across the entire UN system. As you know, we live in a complex, connected world and no issue stands on its own – violence against children, for example, is impacted by poverty, by conflicts, by stress and many other factors, so it is important that we are all connected and understand better how work on one topic can positively impact the work on another issue.

The UNSocial500 is also a great way to put faces to names and to quickly learn more about the diversity of the work that we all do as members of the UN family. I’ve learned a lot by following other colleagues from different UN organizations and am continually impressed and inspired by the work being done by UN colleagues at all levels of the organization.

The UNSocial500 helps bring us together, fosters better understanding of how our work impacts people around the world, and strengthens our understanding of how important it is to continue to join hands to address complex issues and to achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda, including the target 16.2, to end all forms of violence against children.