Children are our most prized asset, yet around the world they still face poverty, trafficking, exploitation, bullying and discrimination – and even though the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified of any of the human rights treaties.

Passed by the UN General Assembly 30 years ago at a time of political unrest, the convention was geared towards protecting children and allowing them to have a bigger say in shaping their future.

It has led to legislation that dramatically improved children’s lives. But despite the advances and commitments made, it has been all too easy for governments to trample on children’s rights and drown their little voices.

As president of Eurochild, a children’s rights advocacy network with 176 members in 34 countries, I believe 2019 is going to be a challenging year. As we mark the 30th anniversary of the convention, we all need to look within and examine the failings; the gap between the aspiration towards these rights and their realisation.

One in four children are at risk of poverty in the EU. Social protection systems are too weak to support families and children in need. There are too many children who go missing or are not recognised by the State. And structural inequalities have locked children and families into a cycle of disadvantage.

Eurochild is focused on putting children at the heart of Europe. As the EU gears up for a new European Commission, the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, which I chair, joins Eurochild in its call for a job worth fighting for: a European Commissioner for Children.

If we want to ensure the future of the European project we need to invest in children now

We need this commissioner because children and young people need to have a proper voice and have visibility at this crucial level where the policies and legislation that affect them and their future are being drafted.

Eurochild has rolled out a petition to gather signatures supporting this new role in the European Commission’s next mandate. We believe this is the only way the EU can prioritise fighting the many challenges children face.

While there is a Commissioner for Fisheries, children remain without their very own representative at an EU level. And although the EU recognised children’s rights in 2009, 10 years later there is no single authority in the EU with the responsibility of child-proofing EU policies to enforce those rights.

During my time as Family and Social Soli­darity Minister and as President of Malta, child participation was always at the centre of my endeavours. I hope this initiative takes off on a pan-European level to draw greater attention to the voice of children.

Children have a lot to say when given a safe space to share their thoughts. I am thankful to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Anġlu Farrugia, who recently gave the Children and Young Persons Council within the foundation the opportunity to hold the first discussion between children and our newly elected MEPs in Parliament.

By acceding to our request, the Speaker gave children the space to have their voice heard. He recognised that if we really are to protect children we have to ensure the rights enshrined in the convention are implemented.

I also appreciate that five of our six elected MEPs who attended ‒ Alex Agius Saliba, Josianne Cutajar, Miriam Dalli, Roberta Metsola and Alfred Sant ‒ were so receptive to the children.

Listening to children’s appeal for MEPs to protect our planet for future years, I was touched by their clarity on so many issues that affect them directly. What they kept repeating was their plea for authorities to safeguard trees and their environment as they watched helplessly while construction took over their spaces to play and dust choked the air they breathe.

They discussed the unfairness of the gender pay gap, the importance of paying teachers well so that they would be happy teaching them, bullying, the advantages and threats of social media, the stress of exams and mental health, among others.

I invite our MEPs to push the voice of children forward on a European platform. If we truly want them to be active citizens then they need the space that would allow them to speak out.

I cannot repeat this often enough. Children are too often sidelined ‒ they are not important to politicians because they don’t have a vote. If we want to ensure the future of the European project we need to invest in children now ‒ they are our leaders of tomorrow and we are only  caretakers of this planet.

Thirty years on from the establishment of the Convention for the Rights of the Child, these rights are still not being enjoyed by children. Let’s make this a meaningful year.

President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca is Eurochild president and chair of the Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

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