The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been in existence for 28 years to specifically protect children’s rights and, recently, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict presented its annual report. As part of Sweden’s work on these issues, Gufran Al-Nadaf was appointed as Sweden’s Ambassador for Children and Armed Conflict. We spoke to her about her ambitions for the position, Sweden’s priorities and the feeling of inadequacy.
It is a fact that the number of conflicts around the world is increasing, and therefore more children are being exposed to armed conflict.
“Children are the most defenceless people in a conflict, particularly in an armed conflict,” says Ambassador Al-Nadaf and Sweden has therefore set specific priorities for its work.
How are these applied?
Ambassador Al-Nadaf: Right now we’re working with Save the Children, Plan International and other civil society organisations, as well as our embassies on several projects, including in Beirut and Colombia. The latter project concerns how we integrate children as peace actors in the new peace process. It is important to also view this from a psycho-social perspective; reintegrating children who have been part of this 50-year conflict is a challenge.
What do you hope to achieve as Ambassador for Children and Armed Conflict?
Ambassador Al-Nadaf: The idealist in me wants to make the world a better place, not least for children. At the same time, the work is tough because of the number conflicts we are seeing around the world, and that they are increasing constantly, which means that the number of vulnerable children is also increasing. Children are subjected to the most terrible things. My hope and ambition is to contribute to the prevention of future conflicts and ease the suffering. I hope to be able to help advance the work a little bit along the way; every step is important, even if it feels small. Saying ‘children are the future’ may sound like empty rhetoric, but it is true!
With regard to the issue of children and armed conflict, there are three major challenges that apply to both boys and girls: children must not be exposed to violence, not least sexual violence and forced marriage; all children must be allow to attend school; and all children must have the right to health, including mental health. Statistics clearly show that girls are to a greater extent exposed to sexual violence, but in recent times sexual violence has also increased for boys. This is problematic, since the entire issue is so stigmatised and with a large number of unrecorded cases.
“There is a taboo regarding how, and if, boys are exposed to sexual violence and forced marriage. One example is how it has become more common in Syria in connection with the war. (…) It is terrible that this is the only safety net there is for these children.”
Ambassador Al-Nadaf has previously said that the feeling of inadequacy is never far away, but at the same time there are glimmers of hope, and progress is being made. “Actually, there are good mechanisms,” she says, “the mere fact that a Special Representative of the Secretary-General has been appointed for these issues is positive. This means the annual report in the area is prepared by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and published annually by the Secretary-General. The issue is also raised once a year in the Security Council’s open debate on children and armed conflict – an important step for continued development.
Ambassador Al-Nadaf’s previous position as Ambassador in Argentina, with concurrent accreditation in Paraguay and Uruguay, and her long career at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, bear witness to a path that many dream about. But the fact that she became an ambassador at the age of 45 in 2013 has also been a long and challenging journey:
“If my daughter wanted to take the same path, I would ask her to weigh up the pros and cons, not least with regard to her private life, before she takes such a decision.”
She explains that although a lot has changed since she started her career, she would advise developing a thick skin, not being afraid of fighting your corner and being prepared to develop endless patience.
Ambassador Al-Nadaf has previously served as Ambassador in Argentina (with responsibility for Uruguay and Paraguay), been posted to Lima and Damascus/Beirut, and worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Department, and Communications Department. Prior to starting the Diplomatic Training Programme, she also worked for a time as a journalist at Swedish Television.