Young changemakers call for safe behaviours
“We are the future, so listen to us!”
The youth participating in the Applying Safe Behaviours project helped create more secure and supportive environments for their peers, future generations of children in alternative care, and families at risk of breakdown. As the project ends, these young changemakers will continue to advocate and act against peer violence because, as they say, “childhood should never be a fighting arena.”
Violence can happen anywhere: on social media, in schools, in alternative care, in public transport, and there is not always an adult present. Children and young people must be listened to and taken seriously. This is one of the key messages from the International Young Expert Group of Applying Safe Behaviours.
Peer violence is one of the most common types of violence affecting children’s lives. It has many forms: bullying and intimidation, physical abuse, cyberbullying and sexual harassment. According to the United Nations, one in three children globally experiences some form of bullying. A similar proportion is affected by physical violence in and around school.
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 initiators of violence themselves.
Co-funded by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Program 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 tools to address peer violence. Meaningful participation of children and young people shaped every stage of the process.
Participation is a right and a need
Dana grew up in SOS Children’s Villages Romania and is now in her final year of high school. She contributed to all project stages, from scoping to creating awareness-raising videos to training Romanian children and young people. When asked about her reasons for joining Applying 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 Spain. She conducted research interviews with Spanish children and youth. Once she became a master trainer, she trained care professionals in seven locations in the country.
“In Applying Safe Behaviours, we are changing the way things are done. I was part of the project from the beginning, so I feel like I built 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 create safer environments for and with children and young people.
Photo by Magdalena Sikorska.
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.”
“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 they feel hurt, they often hear: It’s just a joke, it’s a kids’ thing. 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.”
A survey showed that people who care for and work with children often lack the knowledge and skills 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 interviewed children and youth, added:
"Adults must change how 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?”
Over 570 professionals have completed face-to-face training, covering topics such as reasons behind peer violence, identifying concerning behaviours, restorative practices and being a positive role model.
“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.”
The future of Applying Safe Behaviours
The project ended in July 2023, but the training and dissemination of resources developed with and by young people will continue. Applying Safe Behaviours started as a cooperation between SOS Children’s Villages in Belgium, France, Italy, Romania and Spain. The goal is to expand its scope to support children, youth and professionals in SOS Children’s Villages member associations worldwide.
SOS Children’s Villages’ priority goal is to create environments where all children and young people are safe, heard and supported. Addressing peer violence and empowering children through meaningful participation are core elements of the organization’s Safeguarding Action Plan.