SDG16+ Champions of Change

The high-level advocate fighting to end violence against children


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities. As part of the Movement to Halve Violence by 2030, hear from Champions who have made building peaceful societies their cause and mission in life, and learn what you can do to join them!

As the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Violence against Children, Najat Maalla M’jid promotes the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children in all settings, including online and offline, the justice setting, at home, within schools, institutional care, detention centers, the workplace, and the broader community.

Najat Maalla M’jid, a medical doctor in pediatrics, has over the last three decades devoted her life to the promotion and protection of children’s rights. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors for her strong commitment to protecting the rights of the child.

We spoke with Najat Maalla M’jid to learn more about her work and what drives her:

What ignited your pursuit for safe and peaceful societies?

At a very young age and in the early days of my professional career, contributing to the well-being of children has been my inspiration and life goal. I have engaged in the development of national policies on the protection of the child, working with governments, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations to achieve that goal. As a medical doctor in pediatrics and with over three decades of my life devoted to the promotion and protection of children’s rights I have been fulfilling my life’s dream.

I am very proud of my career, in particular the work as Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and as the founder of a non-governmental organization called Bayti, which was the first program addressing the situation of children living and working in the streets of Morocco. It is very rewarding to devote my life to children. Working with and for them. Every child I meet renews my inspiration and commitment to continue to work on the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children.

To achieve a peaceful, just, and inclusive world, what does success look like to you? And what are the key factors in achieving this vision?

Our vision is to achieve a world where all children live free from violence and abuse. Unfortunately, across regions, violence against children remains a hidden and pervasive epidemic, that undermines the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to act together simultaneously and in various fronts to end violence against children leaving no child behind. We need to do more, act faster and be more effective.

How does your work significantly reduce and prevent violence?

As Special Representative I work as a global independent advocate in favor of the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children acting as a bridge-builder and a catalyst of actions in all regions, and across sectors and settings where violence against children may occur. Mobilizing action and political support to maintain momentum around this agenda is at the core of my work aiming to generate renewed concern at the harmful effects of violence on children; promoting behavioral and social change to achieve effective progress.

The mandate of the Special Representative is anchored in human rights standards, promoting the universal ratification and effective implementation of core international conventions. In our work at international, regional, and country levels supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, we cooperate closely with human rights bodies and mechanisms, with UN funds and programs and specialized agencies, with regional organizations, national institutions, and civil society organizations, including children and young people. We mobilize accelerated action to prevent and end all forms of violence against children leaving no child behind through driving mutually supportive strategies, including contributing to strategic meetings at the international, regional, and national levels; identifying good practices and experience across regions, sectors, and settings; organizing field missions; and promoting thematic studies and reports.

My work as a Special Representative is based on a holistic and child rights-centered approach that emphasizes the role of children as agents of change and their capacity for leadership in building a world free from violence.

(UN Photo / Tobin Jones)

How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that you hope to apply in future work?

A new sense of urgency emerged at the beginning of the year with the pandemic and its unprecedented global impact. The pandemic and the measures taken in response to it have increased the risk of children being exposed to violence, especially those who were already in vulnerable situations before the pandemic. It has also reduced the capacity of essential services to effectively prevent and respond to violence and undermined progress achieved across a range of Sustainable Development Goals.

The response to the pandemic required the activities planned under the mandate to be modified rapidly and adapted to the new reality. The COVID-19 pandemic is harming children worldwide, with the greatest impact on the poorest and most vulnerable children. While the data available so far is only indicative, the mitigation measures taken in response to COVID-19 have heightened the risk of children experiencing or being exposed to violence at home on account of school closures, confinement, movement restrictions, disruption of the provision of already limited child protection services, or added family stress related to job loss, isolation and anxieties over health and finances.

My office intends to make the inclusion of children in the post COVID-19 recovery a priority over the next year. The envisaged activities include the collection of experiences from violence-related aspects in the response to COVID-19 and the development of lessons learned and guidance for emergency preparedness. We will also promote an initiative to establish a high-level champions group that will advocate for the inclusion of child rights and child protection in the recovery phase from the pandemic and in the longer term. Child participation will continue to be a focus, as will the acceleration of action towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

To help ensure that children’s voices are amplified and their views taken fully into account, as Special Representative I have pursued close collaboration with child-led and child-focused organizations. Since child participation is rapidly evolving, my office has been mapping and documenting how children are exercising their right to participate, in order to make recommendations that meet children’s needs today. Children are being innovative, leading the way, holding duty bearers and decision makers locally and globally accountable.

Children’s active involvement before and during COVID-19, whether online or offline, is proving that children can and are being part of the solution. Their inputs, experience, knowledge, and resilience are critical for building the post-COVID world.

What advice do you have for those seeking to make a difference for a more peaceful world?

The international community is at a crucial turning point in the lives of a generation of children who will be most affected by COVID-19. All stakeholders must do everything possible to ensure that children do not become the main victims of the pandemic and to build a better world where children’s rights are promoted and protected, and where no child is left behind. The far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 crisis call for children and their rights to health, education, participation, and protection to be prioritized in the pandemic response and recovery planning.

The recovery is an opportunity for Governments worldwide to reassess priorities — advancing human development and reducing inequalities, especially for children, calls for a major investment. The cost to the child and to broader society of not strengthening social and child protection systems in the recovery phase is simply too high. This must also involve children as part of the solution in the immediate and recovery phase of this pandemic. Even the most economically advanced countries are struggling to cope with the health, social, and economic fallout of the pandemic, but the poorest and most disadvantaged countries will inevitably be hit the hardest.

Without support from the international community, the crisis could destabilize the economies of already impoverished nations, with devastating effects on children. The year 2020 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations, and its message of solidarity, multi-stakeholder cooperation, and multilateralism must be heeded now more than ever.

Children’s active involvement before and during COVID-19, whether online or offline, is proving that children can and are being part of the solution. Children and young people are leading the way: informing, listening, and empowering. Their inputs, experience, knowledge, and resilience are critical for building the post-COVID world. The Special Representative encourages all stakeholders to strengthen the positive role of child participation by developing a constructive dialogue with children and considering them as key actors in building back better and accelerating action towards achieving the 2030 Agenda.