Maria Antônia at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City.
Reporting and photos: Felipe Cala, ChildFund Alliance; Roberta Cecchetti, Save the Children; Agueda Barreto and Thiago Machado, ChildFund Brasil
Fourteen-year-old Maria Antônia has made a name for herself in her home of Crato, a city in northeastern Brazil, because of her determination and community participation. This week, she had the opportunity to be heard on a world stage: a panel on the prevention of violence against children, at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.
“I see this opportunity as a process of inclusion,” she said before the event, “because young people from 10 different countries will contribute with relevant themes on our point of view, to achieve a better world.”
The March 23 side-event took place during the third gathering of U.N. members to negotiate the post-2015 development agenda, a global set of priorities to tackle such issues as poverty, hunger, inequality and disease in the next 15 years. The goals are expected to be finalized in September. The purpose of the side-event — hosted by the governments of Canada, Guatemala, Japan and Palau — was to highlight the importance of allowing children to grow up in violence-free communities, schools and homes, and to bring their voices to decision-makers in New York.
ChildFund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages International, UNICEF and World Vision International, as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children and the Latin America and Caribbean Movement for Children, collaborated to organize the discussion.
Maria Antônia spoke about physical, psychological and sexual violence and children’s own recommendations to prevent and respond to violence, including ways to report incidents safely and increasing social services at schools and health clinics.
“It is very important to improve child-friendly services within the child protection network, so that children feel confident and safe,” she said.
The visit was exciting and somewhat overwhelming for Maria Antônia, who is sponsored through ChildFund and also takes part in community projects with one of our local partners in Brazil. This was her first visit to New York City, and on the first day, she went to Central Park and saw snow for the first time (“It was beautiful,” she said). The next day, Maria Antônia prepared to speak at the U.N. headquarters, a daunting prospect.
“Early in the morning, I could only think that I would not be able to represent children and adolescents,” she recalled. “I felt fear and insecurity. But after my speech, I was congratulated. And that made me very happy. I had the feeling that I did what I had come to do.
“I realize how important it is to improve the entire environment where I live — my home, my community and my school,” she added.
And Maria Antônia is returning home with tales to tell. “My friends will ask me about the city, my experience in a new and different place, but what I really want to talk about is the opportunity to be heard. It’s a dream I could never dream.”