Left to right are Ann Montague, Dr. Blye Frank, Marta Santos Pais, Jerry Nussbaum, Lillian Boraks-Nemetz and Marny Point. (photo by Tiffany Cooper)
On Sept. 13, at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture held by the University of British Columbia faculty of education in partnership with the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada (JKAC), the audience listened to the words of a saint.
It is an apt description of Marta Santos Pais, whose middle name does indeed mean saint, in Portuguese. Santos Pais is the United Nations special representative of the secretary-general on violence against children. She has worked for decades with remarkable optimism, resilience, focus and patience to try and create a world where no child will suffer violence. At the least, it’s a saintly endeavour.
Santos Pais, who has a law degree from the University of Lisbon, was appointed to her current position in 2009, after a distinguished career working in several capacities in Europe for the rights of children, including being involved in the drafting of many high-level resolutions and policies. As a global independent advocate, Santos Pais would like to see the elimination of all forms of violence against children: in the justice setting, in the home, in institutional care, in schools, in the workplace and in the community.
The co-sponsor of the lecture, JKAC, was established in 2002 and is dedicated to the remembrance of Janusz Korczak and the dissemination of his ideas about the protection and education of children. Korczak was a Polish Jew who was killed by the Nazis along with the orphaned children under his care in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite being given the opportunity to escape, Korzcak instead chose to stay with the children and accompany them to Treblinka, where they were all murdered.
Marny Point, a coordinator and instructor in NITEP, the Indigenous Teacher Education Program at UBC, and a representative of the Hul’q’umi’num Salish peoples, spoke in her language as well as in English to open the event. Holocaust survivor, author and JKAC board member Lillian Boraks-Nemetz then spoke briefly, reading from Korczak’s ghetto diary and highlighting the need for those who care for children to first attain self-knowledge.
“How can we aspire to become the kind of teacher and human being Korczak was?” asked Boraks-Nemetz, underlining his claim that it was through knowing ourselves that we may begin. Evoking Korczak’s warning that children are too often overlooked amid the storms that blow through the adult world, Boraks-Nemetz quoted him to that effect: “It is the children who always have to carry the burden of history’s atrocities.”
Dr. Anton Grunfeld presented a graduate scholarship to Ann Montague, a researcher in child education. She was awarded the scholarship on the basis of an ethnographic study of children’s education she conducted in Bali with an eye towards “mobilizing children as agents of care for the environment.”
While Dr. Blye Frank, dean of the faculty of education, introduced Santos Pais, Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, an Allard School of Law professor who works at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre – and who served as British Columbia’s first representative for children and youth from 2006 to 2016 – spoke a bit about Santos Pais first. She highlighted Santos Pais’s influence on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action for the federal government, especially the sixth, which advises the abolition of Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code allowing the corporal punishment of children. Several of the evening’s speakers noted the importance of convincing the Canadian government to repeal Section 43 and join other countries that have outlawed all physical violence against children. Turpel-Lafond noted with particular gratitude the work of JKAC president Jerry Nussbaum in this regard.
Santos Pais began by acknowledging Korczak’s legacy, citing its role in inspiring the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). She drew a connection between the achievement of sustainable development and putting children first – starting with investing in the early years and creating a safe, loving environment for all children.
Progress has been made in the areas of “data, legislation, policy and program developments,” but the daily reality of millions of children, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized, cries out to be addressed with more effectiveness, she said.
Santos Pais spoke of the goal to “leave no children behind anywhere and at no time – but, of course, the world is not yet there.” She noted that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the CRC, giving us an occasion to recommit to addressing the one billion children still affected by violence each year.
Santos Pais spoke of the UN’s efforts both to listen to children around the world about their experience of violence, and to comprehensively study the wider social and economic costs of violence towards them. According to Santos Pais, presenting such evidence can be an important piece in motivating governments to see preventing violence towards children not as an expense but as a benefit to their country as a whole. Still, she said, many governments have told her that the goal of completely eliminating violence towards children in the near future is too idealistic, that it is “a joke.” To the contrary, she stressed, “We tend to believe that this goal can be accomplished and that there are many practical steps that we can take towards it.”
After Santos Pais’s speech, Nussbaum and Frank presented her with a Janusz Korczak statuette in honour of her service to children. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I’m going to cry now in my seat.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.