Children should not be used as part of political parties’ election campaigns and their voices should be given more weight in drafting new laws and policies, says the new Children’s Commissioner Antoinette Vassallo.
“Irrespective of whether children have their parents’ permission, they should not be used in political campaigns to attract sympathy of voters.
“In a small society like Malta this can lead to them getting bullied by children of different political beliefs,” said Vassallo, as she drew attention to the recommendations for political parties issued by her office some years ago.
Yet, despite this, as the election campaign is in full swing, parties continue using images of children on billboards and other campaign material.
One month following her appointment as commissioner, Vassallo has been focusing on meeting stakeholders to build on the work of previous commissioners.
Her focus, she says, will be on ensuring that children’s voices are heard.
“I wish to reach a point where, when politicians want to draw up a law or policy that impacts children, they get their feedback,” she says.
She has already implemented this by setting up a focus group for children to list what they want to see in the political parties’ manifestos.
Married to former Labour MP Adrian Vassallo, a medical doctor, Vassallo has long been used to people going over to her house to voice concerns.
It was those very people who encouraged her to contest the local council elections which she did once her four children grew up. She was elected Ta’ Xbiex mayor, a role she served for 14 years, until 2013.
“This gave me a big boost. It was something new. I got to meet people, gained self-confidence and learned to be more systematic in juggling things.
“I met people from all walks of life, including the vulnerable,” she says.
Throughout her career Vassallo served as chair of the Housing Authority taking on another new challenge that further introduced her to the realities faced by those people with social problems.
Vassallo also went on to serve on various government boards including the Children and Young Persons Advisory Board that handles care orders.
“Here I witnessed many painful cases and saw what these children go through. During my time there I insisted on meeting the children to listen to them,” she says.
Vassallo believes that children are best raised in a family environment. While the people running residential care homes do their best to give the children all they can, they cannot give them individual attention.
Having seen first-hand the hardship that children in care experience as well as the dedication of foster parents, she agrees with allowing foster families to adopt the children to give them a stable home.
However, she also saw how children crave a relationship with their biological parents – which is why open adoption is preferred, when possible.
Last month, Family Minister Michael Falzon called for a change in culture that favours open adoptions, as the number of local adoptions remains low.
In all, 234 children have been adopted over the past nine years, only three of whom were adopted from Malta. There are currently 460 children in alternative care, 260 of whom are being fostered.
Over the past weeks one of the most talked-about child-related issues has been the removal of face masks at school. Health Minister Chris Fearne said this might happen after Easter, deepening on the pandemic situation.
The way Vassallo sees it, it is important to respect the advice of the experts – the health authorities – since they have the interest of all at heart.
“Children’s rights should remain a priority and, while the situation in schools should factor in what is happening outside, we cannot forget that there are vulnerable children in the classroom.
“Some say we can give children the option to wear or not wear a mask. But, having some children wearing masks while others don’t could lead to peer pressure and bullying,” she fears.
As for bullying – speaking about the recent case of the 12-year-old girl who was filmed being punched, and kicked after school – Vassallo expresses concern at the fact that the footage went viral resulting in double bullying – physical and cyber.
“The victim was re-traumatised each time she saw it. I urge these victims to speak up for help.”
Homework and screen time
Over the years, she says, previous commissioners carried out focus groups with children.
Issues raised included the need for more coordination when it comes to homework. In the case of secondary school, where children have a number of teachers, there could be more coordination so that students do not end up with lots of homework on one day and very little on another, she says.
Some parents complain about too much homework.
“Homework was always there... what changed is the time parents have to help children with homework.
“Nowadays, both parents work and come home late and have to juggle cooking and homework in a short timeframe,” she says, pointing out that one solution is having time dedicated to homework during school after-hours.
Then, there were the extracurricular activities – another thing to fit into tight timeframes.
“These are good so long as the children are enjoying themselves and parents are not imposing their own interests and ambitions,” she says.
And when it comes to busy parents, sometimes the easiest thing is giving a child a tablet. This is something concerning.
“We need to teach children that there is a time for the screen and time for family. But this has to start with the parents... they have to give children quality time,” she says as she concedes that the pressure is high for parents since children request screens and want to keep up with what their peers are watching.
This sedentary life, as well as dietary choices, contribute to Malta’s high rate of childhood obesity.
While Vassallo feels there is more awareness about healthy eating, not enough priority is given to exercise as schools do not make this a priority.
She also cautions about being “too extreme” in setting “standards” for children, having heard of cases where schools do not allow certain foods including white bread and ham.
“Balance is key,” she says adding: “let’s let these children be children.”