April 7-8, 2017,
Buddhist leaders from the Mekong region and Sri Lanka gathered in Bangkok on April 7-8, proposed creating a new network in Asia to increase their commitment and action to strengthen child protection in their communities. The two-day consultation in Bangkok focused on the critical role of Buddhist leaders and practitioners in preventing violence against children, in particular the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. The consultation was organized by Arigatou International/Prayer and Action for Children, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and ECPAT International. Among the participants were representatives of organizations working in the area of child protection including UNICEF, World Vision, the South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children (SAIEVAC), all of whom endorsed the proposal.
Buddhist monks and community leaders from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, heard international experts speak on the many forms of violence against children within the family, schools and community, as well as the commercial sexual exploitation and abuse of children in travel and tourism. It was pointed out that every five minutes, a child dies as a result of violence and every year, at least one billion children are exposed to violence and four out of five children are subjected to some form of violent discipline in their homes. Girls are particularly vulnerable as one in five girls between the ages of 15-19 have been victims of physical violence. Currently more than 240 million children live in countries affected by violent conflict. Experts from ECPAT informed participants about online child sexual exploitation and abuse, which has quickly become a growing global phenomenon.
Arigatou International is a faith-based organization committed to building a better world for children including by maximizing the potential of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Arigatou partners with UNICEF and also collaborates with other like-minded non-governmental organizations that focus on promoting and protecting children’s rights and well-being. Arigatou International established the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) in 2000, whose members are located in some 45 countries, which continues to grow today as a platform for interfaith cooperation on children’s issues. Ending violence against children is one of the top priorities for the organization which reaches out to leaders of diverse religions and faith communities in many parts of the world to join this cause.
ECPAT International is a global network of organizations dedicated to eliminating the commercial sexual exploitation of children. This includes sexual exploitation of children through prostitution, child abuse images, the trafficking of children for sexual purposes and child sex tourism. With 95 members in 86 countries, ECPAT works to build collaboration among local civil society and the broader child rights community to form a global social movement for the protection of children from sexual exploitation. ECPAT works in partnership with non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, private sector and law enforcement and advocates for a collective response to protect children and put an end to commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Religious leaders and faith communities are essential partners who can take preventive action through their spiritual leadership and moral standing for ending all forms of violence against children. In her keynote speech, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, told the Buddhist leaders, “You are leaders in the process of change needed to build a world of peace, justice, solidarity and joy for every child, a world where violence, in whatever form and under whatever circumstance, finds no justification or excuse.” She gave examples from different faith communities, including Buddhists, of how religious leaders have been able to break the silence surrounding violence against children and provide help and support to its victims. Ms. Santos Pais further noted that religious leaders have used their influential voices to call for increased attention and stronger responses by governments to violence against children, including through law reform, strengthened policies and allocation of resources. Buddhist leaders of the Mekong region and Sri Lanka can help to strengthen norms and values that support non-violent, respectful and nurturing behavior within the family, the school and the community environment where children and adolescents spend their time. It was recognized that Buddhist ideals like moderation, self-discipline and compassion are valuable assets and that these ideals are effective in preventing violence against children.
In a message that was read to the participants, Rev. Keishi Miyamoto, President of Arigatou International and the Spiritual Director of Myochikai, a Japanese Buddhist organization in the Mahayana tradition, stated that while the children of the world experience many kinds of suffering which pain all our hearts, “nothing seems quite as heinous as sexual violence perpetrated against a child.” Rev. Miyamoto pointed out that he believes that one of the factors that have allowed this form of violence to survive has been, “the social reluctance to admit and face the scope of the problem.” He praised the courage and willingness shown by the participants to confront the problem head on and hoped for “concrete and comprehensive partnerships for finding new ways to combat and protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse”.
Among the distinguished speakers were Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, Thailand’s former Representative for Children’s Rights to the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). Dr. Chutikul was also a member of several international human rights committees within the United Nations including the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the CEDAW Committee, which oversee the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda also spoke who is one of the prestigious Peace Councilors among other prominent religious leaders of the world and in 2004 was presented an award as an outstanding Buddhist woman by the UN, and nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 2005. She is well known among Buddhist academics for her involvement in the ordination of women and her concern for the environment. Both women spoke persuasively on the ways in which Buddhist leaders can take action to prevent violence against children.
Another distinguished speaker was Mr. Sanphasit Koompraphant, a leader in the field of children’s rights, who has earned many awards for his tireless work to protect children and was one of the first to expose child trafficking, abduction and commercial sexual exploitation in Thailand and the Mekong region Dr. Rinchen Chophel, Director General of the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) and who has championed the promotion and protection of the rights of women and children with distinction, shared his vast experience and knowledge with the participants.
During the rich discussions it was recognized in particular that sexual violence against children is a taboo issue in all societies and there is dire need to address it and raise awareness for its prevention. Buddhist leaders were called upon to work to ensure that all Buddhist temples, monastic schools and communities are safe spaces for children that can help to heal victims of violence and reintegrate them into society. International experts emphasized the opportunity to accelerate action presented by the Sustainable Development Agenda adopted by the United Nations in 2015 and its target 16.2, which aims to end all forms of violence against children by 2030. A memorable parting message resonated with the participants that ¨working together we can make a children’s dream of a world free from fear and from violence a reality!”
Venerable U Nayaka, Principal of the Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School in Myanmar expressed great interest in holding the next regional gathering of Buddhist leaders in Myanmar and offered to host it in Mandalay. Discussions are underway to organize a second consultation on violence against children in late October of this year which will also lead to the establishment of the Asian Network of Buddhists for Child Protection.
A few of the Buddhist leaders who participated in Bangkok will be meeting again in Panama at the 5th Global Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) to be held on May 9-11, 2017, which has as its theme, “Ending Violence Against Children: Faith Communities in Action. The GNRC 5th Forum will include plenary sessions, panel discussions, expert presentations and reflections on the three key thematic areas, namely: Protecting Children from Violent Extremism, Gang Violence and Organized Crime; Nurturing Spirituality and Ending Violence in Child Upbringing; and, Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children. In all these areas the role of faith communities will be addressed.