Inclusion and protection of children in and through sport 7th October 2013 Budapest, HUNGARY

Conference co-organised by EPAS and the Hungarian Secretariat of Sport, in cooperation with the Council of Europe’s ONE in FIVE Campaign to stop sexual violence against children

Speech by Johan van den HOUT,  the Congress Thematic Spokesperson on Children (Netherlands, SOC)

Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank you for having invited the Congress to take the floor in the closing session of this most interesting conference.

If I was happy to accept the invitation to come here today, it is because the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities takes very seriously the responsibility we, local and regional elected representatives have to ensure that all children are treated as fully-fledged citizens and that their rights are respected.  It is also because the Congress lays great store by sport as a means not only of promoting a healthy lifestyle but also of promoting understanding and solidarity between European citizens.

For most children and young people, engaging in sporting activities is a positive experience. Sport helps build their self-confidence and self-esteem, their physical and mental health, and their well-being.  But, as we know, a negative sporting culture also exists, and the experiences of some children and young people may be far from enriching.  Studies[1] have highlighted the existence of worrying levels of emotionally harmful treatment and unacceptable levels of sexual harassment against children in some sport environments.  Children and young people are subjected to verbal bullying, for example, or are shouted at and humiliated.  Both physical and sexual abuse are a horrific reality.

Unfortunately, these experiences tend to be accepted as normal by children and young people and ‘just what happens in sport’.  Apparently, a sporting culture exists which accepts and condones disrespectful and negative treatment towards children and young people, and between young people, coaches and other adults.

Preventive strategies to safeguard children and young people from such negative experiences must be our priority. Children and young people need to be made fully aware of their right to be safe when engaging in sporting activities.  This is important to local and regional authorities as the responsibility to provide and manage sports and leisure facilities most often falls to us. 

We provide sports facilities, such as playing fields, swimming pools and stadiums.  We support sports clubs and associations, run sports schools and organise sporting events for citizens.  This means we are also responsible for safeguarding the children and young people who use those facilities.  This responsibility to protect our young citizens also extends to their general safety and welfare.  This is why the Congress joined the Council of Europe’s ONE in FIVE Campaign.  The services that are needed to help victims of sexual violence and abuse are provided, in the main, at the local level.  This is also the level where preventive and awareness-raising measures can be most effective.  So the Congress has a very important task to fulfil: to raise the awareness of the Lanzarote Convention and of the ONE in FIVE Campaign amongst its members, but also amongst other local and regional authorities and its partners, such as the national associations of local and regional authorities.

To do this, the Congress has developed a Pact of Towns and Regions to Stop Sexual Violence against Children.  The Pact contains examples of policies, initiatives and structures which we feel local and regional authorities can usefully implement to achieve the aims of the ONE in FIVE Campaign.  The Pact follows the four-pronged approach of Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Participation: to prevent abuse, protect victims, prosecute perpetrators and ensure the full participation of children in the entire process.  Thanks to this approach, local and regional authorities can decide how best to run public sector agencies to ensure that children and young people are protected and supported, whilst actively pursuing the prosecution of perpetrators.  We are, of course, aware that in these times of economic and financial crisis, money is tight, cuts are being made, transfers to local and regional councils are being reduced.  This is why the Pact also proposes a number of simple initiatives that require very little if any public spending – for example simply putting a link on towns’ homepages to the Council of Europe ONE in FIVE website.  The ultimate aim is to encourage local and regional authorities to adopt specific strategies and set up dedicated structures, such as children’s houses or multidisciplinary centres, which will obviously necessitate substantial investment.

Of course, political will is extremely important, especially in today’s climate when cost will always be an important factor.  We are taking every opportunity to introduce the Pact and the Campaign to mayors, council leaders and presidents of regional parliaments, and I invite you all to do the same.  Our own president, Herwig van Staa, who is president of the Tyrol Parliament in Austria, will be signing the Pact during our plenary session at the end of this month.  Jean-Claude Mignon, president of the Parliamentary Assembly, has signed up his town of Dammairie-lès-Lys too.  But we must continue in our efforts to get the message across that whatever the cost involved, measures to stop sexual violence and abuse of children will always be cost-effective as they are an investment in a healthy community, based on the respect for human rights.

As for sport promoting inclusion, we in the Congress aim to build inclusive societies where everyone – both adults and children - feels they belong.  That feeling of belonging starts at home, in our towns and in our cities, in the suburbs, in the streets.  Sport offers a structure within which everyone must be welcome.  Thanks to sporting activities, we are able to forge links with our fellow citizens thereby avoiding exclusion and isolation.  This is why we actively encourage municipalities to support any policy that aims to make sport more accessible to as many people as possible, irrespective of age, gender, religious or social background. 

Statistics show that children who engage in sport and recreation do better academically and are more likely to enjoy school.  Sport and recreation can help to divert young people from crime and anti-social behaviour.  It can also target those young people most at risk of committing crime and help their rehabilitation and development.  Sport also has a positive influence on people’s quality of life, health, life expectancy, mental stability and self-confidence.  This is why we want all of our citizens to have access to sports amenities.  This is why we believe all sporting facilities should be free of charge.

I would like to close, Ladies and gentleman, by reiterating the Congress’s support to an initiative which was presented to us a couple of years ago, that is the project to develop a European Day of Sport.  This project invites villages, towns and cities across Europe to put their sports amenities at the disposal, free of charge, of all of our citizens for one day.  Thanks to this project, everyone will be given the opportunity to discover new physical activities and pastimes, the opportunity to come together, in play, with their neighbours and fellow citizens.  Although sport is not a panacea for the wide range of problems facing society, it would be a mistake not to make use of the opportunities it offers to us to build a more inclusive European society.

As Congress Thematic Spokesperson on Children, I congratulate the Council of Europe on its ONE in FIVE Campaign and its programme to build a Europe for and with children.  And I thank the European Partial Agreement on Sport and the Hungarian Secretariat of Sport for their excellent initiative to organise this conference.  Based on the discussions that have been held over the past one and a half days, I think we will all agree that safeguarding children has to be a priority for us all.  And that this priority requires 100 % commitment from all parties.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.

[1]Report: The Experiences of Children Participating in Organised Sport in the UK (2011)