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Reducing violence in young children’s lives: an interview with Cecilia Vaca Jones

Cecilia Vaca Jones* is Programme Director, Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF). Prior to joining the Foundation, she was Coordinating Minister of Social Development of Ecuador from April 2013 to March 2016. This email interview was conducted by Sudeshna Mukherjee.

1. You were previously Coordinating Minister of Social Development for the Government of Ecuador.  Could you elaborate and cite some of the policies that you have helped shape towards a better and safer childhood?

As Coordinating Minister of Social Development, I was able to oversee the branch of government that works to meet social development goals for the country. During the three years of my tenure, I was able to contribute to the creation, evaluation, review and innovation of policies in vital areas of social development, promising better living for all Ecuadorians, especially for children. Among the most important policies that I was able to help promote and enforce, were the early childhood national strategy, educational reforms, healthcare reforms, social security reforms and the poverty alleviation national strategy. In the last nine years, the Government of Ecuador achieved important social indicators. As a result, more than 1.5 million people overcame poverty, and extreme poverty dropped by nine percent. Ecuador was ranked the top country in the region for reducing inequality according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. These results did not happen suddenly; strong political will and adequate design were required in order to sustain Ecuador’s high public investment − 15% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) − dedicated to ensuring not only conditions for efficiency and competitiveness of our economic growth, but also for the welfare of people through access to more services, roads, hospitals, health centres and schools as a tangible expression of a development approach that is not centred in capital but in human beings. Poverty and inequality in Ecuador are the result of many structural problems that cannot be solved simply by redistributing money to the most marginalized.In Ecuador, all elements of our society—public and private—seek to work together by putting our citizens first. (INEC 2015)

2. The Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF), where you are now based, is promoting Urban95 design principles as part of “designing cities that support healthy child development”.  These take into consideration city planning from the vantage point of a toddler. Could you please share with us how you plan to implement this and is there any evidence of success?

Today, more than half of the world is living in cities, including more than 1 billion children – a number that is increasing as more families are drawn to cities in search of a better future. Along with new opportunities, however, cities also pose new challenges for families, such as inequality, poor housing, limited access to health, transport and childcare services, and limited public spaces for play. The challenges are compounded by under-resourced cities that are struggling to design and implement new solutions. In addition, early childhood development is not yet a recognized priority within the urban agenda.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF) is interested in working with leading cities to incorporate an early childhood development lens across sectors and throughout their planning, design and performance measurement activities. The vision of Urban95 is that all the world’s cities are liveable, inclusive cities that enable families to thrive. BvLF believes that a city, planned and designed for young children aged 0-5 years is not only good for them, but for the urban population as a whole.

In order to do this, we will work with municipalities, private sector, civil society and knowledge creating partners in 10 pioneering cities across the globe on innovative initiatives that have a potential for replication and scale. This will then allow us to increase the number of cities globally that use effective planning and design innovations to improve child health, well-being and development outcomes thereby improving the ability of cities to deliver better support for children and families.

3. The Habitat III conference in Quito offers a potential opportunity for the international community at all levels to harmonise its understanding of the challenges and opportunities posed by current trends in urbanisation. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence-based data that supports community violence prevention to make cities safer for children. Please share your thoughts on how this furthers Agenda 2030?

BvLF welcomes the paragraphs in the draft New Urban Agenda referring to promoting age and gender responsive planning and investment. We also support the mention of specific groups such as elderly, women and children, disabled people, etc. However, we are concerned that the specific mention of ‘young children’ or ‘families with young children’ is totally absent in the New Urban Agenda. Similar to the existing paragraph on elderly, we recommended, through a position paper, to add a paragraph on the commitment to address the social, health, economic and spatial implications of young children (0-5 years) and families with young children, and harness the crucial early childhood age factor.

BvLF is also part of the Children and Youth Partner Constituent Group (PCG) of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), which is the main vehicle for civil society and other stakeholders to share experiences and issues of children living in cities, and propose solutions that contribute to making cities and human settlements more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. BvLF has been present at Habitat III preparatory events and will be part of Habitat III to disseminate the message that including young children is crucial and we will share best practices from our experiences in India. We believe, Habitat III represents an opportunity to present Urban95 as an important urban challenge. We hope that by sharing this idea, we will have a better understanding of the strategic possibilities involved in committing large cities to grasp on the local urban policy priorities and how these could be linked to our perspective.

4. Can you cite some best practices or success stories in the Americas or elsewhere in the world where lessons can be learned with regards to encouraging the creation of inclusive cities particularly as it relates to the prevention of violence in childhood?

Repeated exposure to violence, either as victims or as witnesses, has lifelong effects on young children’s health, well-being and ability to learn. This is the main reason that made us support two partners to do research on why violence happens, raising the profile of this issue on the public agenda, testing solutions through demonstration projects and building partnerships with policymakers with a view to scaling-up evidence based approaches.

One successful approach to combatting violence both domestically, as well as on the street, was “La Familia Policial Libre de Violencia” (Police Family Free of Violence). This initiative was developed by our partner IPROMIF in a community in Perú where a third of police officers, both male and female, indicated they did not intervene if a couple was fighting in public. A series of workshops and individual counselling for 110 police families aimed to change attitudes and behaviours, instead of focusing on tactical procedures and protocols. Police officers were guided to better understand the rights and risks associated with domestic violence – not as police officers, but as fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, and friends. Half of the police officers who attended the workshops, indicated that they understand the harm that authoritarian parenting can cause.

“It would be great to replicate this programme around the world. Imagine if all police officers were prepared psychologically and emotionally to deal with violence. The impact would be really big.”– Yuselin Ramos (Police Officer, Huancavelica, Peru)

Another successful experience I would like to share, is in Recife, Brazil, where extreme levels of social and economic inequality, invisibility and social exclusion, and a system of values based on moral debt are the root causes of the high levels of violence. To overcome these challenges, our partner Shine a Light, first mapped the social actors in eight of the most at-risk favelas or slums. This information was then compiled and geo-referenced into Google Maps and served as the basis for Favela News. Favela News is an online news platform, designed for young men and women in favelas to gain peaceful recognition and respect from their community as an alternative to previous methods, such as the use of violence, arms, and drug trafficking. Since Favela News started in 2012, the homicide rate has dropped and police brutality has decreased in the communities in which Favela News works.

“Having Favela News making films of the community shows that there are people that believe in the community, in change. And they know that the community has important things to offer when they film and show our reality.” –Jonas, a favela resident

5. How does the partnership with Know Violence align with BvLF’s strategic plan?

The BvLF’s 2010-2015 strategic plan pursued three programme goals: reducing violence in young children’s lives, taking quality early education to scale, and improving young children’s physical environments. Violence is not only an important global problem facing young children, but also an under-addressed one. In comparison to other aspects of young children’s lives, data on violence is scarce; while according to UNICEF, experiencing violence, even witnessing violence in early childhood, is one of the best predictors of being a victim or perpetrator of violence in later life.

The Know Violence in Childhood initiative aims to develop a ‘state of art’ knowledge base on violence in childhood and the most effective ways to prevent it across different regions of the world. It will thus be useful for all of BvLF’s violence-related work, for example, to help partners think about implementation of evidence-based family support solutions at scale. Know Violence will both catalogue and communicate solutions specifically with respect to BvLF’s goal to reduce violence in young children’s lives and is complemented by other ongoing global BVLF projects with similar goals including the National Academy of Sciences’ Forum on Investing in Young Children, the Violence and Children Evaluation Challenge Fund and Without Violence.

It is also important to mention that currently the BvLF is investing in its new strategy where we are primarily interested in developing knowledge resources that can allow us to take early childhood policies and programmes to scale effectively.

*Cecilia Vaca Jones has over 15 years of experience managing social development policies and programmes. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Policies for Sustainable Development from the University of Bologna, Italy, and a BA in International Relations from the Pontifical Catholic University in Ecuador. She also held policy-making roles in various other Ecuadorian governmental ministries, including the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Social Inclusion and the Ministry of Education. In these roles, she was responsible for developing public policy goals and initiatives designed to safeguard human rights.

Additionally, she worked for a number of civil society and international organisations, including CESTAS, Fundación Esquel, the Organization of American States and UNDP. She also served as a part-time professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito, and as a language scholar at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, USA.


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