Panel Address: Indigenous Children Globally

Panellists left to right:

  • Arturo Requesens, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

  • HE Mr Enrique Roman-Morey, UN Ambassador of Peru

  • HE Mr Gary Quinlan, UN Ambassador of Australia

  • Richard Morgan, Director, Policy and Practice, UNICEF

  • Benson Saulo, Australian Youth Ambassador to the United Nations

Good afternoon Mr Chair and guests,

Firstly I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on traditional land and pay my respects to the elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge my family and those who have come before me from the Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara nations of Western Victoria, Australia – as well as my father’s side from New Ireland Provence of Papua New Guinea and other Indigenous peoples joining us today.

My name is Benson Saulo – I am the Australian Youth Ambassador to the United Nations. I am the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed into this position since its inception in 1999. While this is a great honour, I also feel it is a wonderful reflection on the youth of Australia who want to promote an inclusive and equal society.

I would like to congratulate the EU and GRULAC groups for their work during the recent Rights of the Child negotiations, in particular their request for the Secretary-General to submit a comprehensive report on the Rights of the Child with strong focus on Indigenous Children during the 67th session of the General Assembly.

Nine years since the International Year of the Worlds Indigenous People and five years since the adoption of the Convention of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we reaffirm our commitment to highlight and address the disparity, globally among Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Commitments built on the understanding that we are all connected regardless of geographical or cultural divide.

It is this connection that I have seen during my travels across Australia, whether it is in North-Western Australia, in islands of the Tiwi’s, the cool climates of South Australia or the urban surroundings of metropolitan Melbourne – a sense of place, purpose and pride and a sense of history as members of the oldest living cultures in the world.

But there is also another connection we share with other Indigenous people regardless of age, a connection that is not restricted by borders or boundaries, a connection that is not weakened through language barriers – it is the connection we share through the impacts of colonialism, the loss of cultural practices, the ramifications of high incarceration rates, high suicide rates and welfare dependency and their cross-generational impacts on health, education and employment.

In 2006, Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over were half as likely to complete school as non-Indigenous Australians, that is 23per cent compared to 49per cent and they were also twice as likely to leave school at grade 9 or below. While there has been an improvement to these numbers over recent years a divide in educational outcomes still exists.

In June this year I completed a 10 day road trip, with four UN Youth Representatives from Alice Springs in central Australia to Darwin, located at the Central-North of Australia. It was an amazing experience visiting rural and remote towns, attending schools and meeting inspiring students.

We visited the small town of Elliott, with a population of about 600 residents. Attending the local school which was predominately Indigenous students, we spoke to classes about a range of social issues relating to health and education, many issues that are prevalent in their own community, including alcohol, violence and inter-generational hurt from injustices and discriminations.

During lunchtime the School Principal walked us around the playground, he advised that no-one had completed grade 12 from this school in 7 years, which is unfortunately a common story throughout regional and remote Australia. As we continued he pointed out 2 young girls and 1 young boy, in grade 8 and said, these 3 students have the potential to be the first in their family, first in the community to complete grade 12 and break the cycle of disadvantage and low expectations that had gripped this town.

I am a firm believer that schools should be the training grounds of our future leaders, leaders in our families, leaders in our communities, leaders in business and ultimately leaders in our nations. But it is too often that this potential goes unnoticed or lacks support, possibly from broken family units or through ridged education systems or through the lack of opportunities to identify and develop this potential.

Education is the key to developing young children with a sense of purpose and aspiration, understanding history creates pride, it creates passion and the idea that we are not defined by our surroundings that we can have a positive impact on our communities, our nations and indeed the world.

When I speak of history, I’m not speaking specifically about culture; culture is vital to all Indigenous people; it is our life blood, our connection to the earth, to our mother and father and to our brothers and sisters. I am speaking of our place in time, the struggles, the battles won and lost from the grasslands and forests, on street corners and in the court rooms. This is where passion lies, this is where potential and aspiration is born, understanding the progress made but also understanding the long road still to go.

In August, I spoke at the 2011 National Native Title Conference held in Brisbane, on the north-eastern coast of Australia. I attended a men’s talking circle, which attracted over 40 men from various regions across Australia, some who have achieved Native Title on their lands and others going through the extensive process. Sitting opposite to me was an old Aboriginal man; he had huge broad shoulders, he wore a giant 10 galleon stockman’s hat, leaning forward, with the wide brim covering half his face, he spoke in a deep and solemn voice to a silent room.

He said for the past 30years he has been fighting to be recognised as an Aboriginal man working and living on his traditional lands. He spoke of the disconnection he felt with his children and growing disconnection with his grandchildren, he didn’t feel they shared the same passion as him or share the same fire as he for culture and social justice, he didn’t believe they would continue his fight once he had passed on.

This sense of disconnection between generations is very real and increasing among our young. The urgency of addressing this widening gap is now – through initiatives encouraging cross-generational sharing, interaction and learning. Utilising social media enables a wider audience to be engaged often regardless of socio-economic status or geographical locations.

Sharing knowledge in a digital world is preserving cultural knowledge throughout the world. Social media is a powerful tool for re-engaging our young in culture.

During next year’s Rights of the Child negotiations I hope to see the inclusion of references to:

  • Meaningful participation; this must be encouraged within organisations and governments when engaging Indigenous children through the process of inclusive consultation with communities and the children themselves.
  • Including Indigenous children in decisions that affect them; involving children in initiatives and engagements as drivers for strengthening culture, cross-generational sharing and as catalysts for positive change.
  • Leadership development; to empower, develop and build capacity within our young children to become leaders who are grounded in culture and community.

I’ve seen our young calling out for role models. If this isn’t coming from those around them, where does it come from? The school, sports stars, the latest hip-hop star to be flashed across their computer screens?

Unfortunately, there is rarely a quick path to achieving positive change. Developing and delivering successful programs and shifting the mindsets of institutions and governments is a process that takes time and dedication.

But with persistence, faith and with hope the ongoing drive for equality, justice and recognition of Indigenous people globally will be realised.

Self-determination will be defined by the partnerships formed and our collective ability to share and learn from each other’s success.

Equality and justice is what guides our footsteps to ensure a safer, happier and inclusive world for our children, globally.

Thank you.


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