By Catherine Burgess
The opportunity to work at UNICEF Canada arose almost entirely by chance.
I wanted to gain experience in an organisation engaged in international humanitarian work and then use that experience towards my final year dissertation. However, I had not been successful in getting any experience in the organisations that I had applied to – until I received a response from UNICEF Canada. I was told that, although they didn’t usually take volunteers in a research capacity, one of their project managers needed assistance with a project on child soldiers.
The former Senator Romeo Dallaire was establishing the Child Soldiers Initiative with the assistance of organisations including UNICEF Canada and help was needed to research various items including funding opportunities.
UNICEF Canada relied on external funding for their projects and my role included spending time finding donors to whom we were most likely to make successful bids. Although this was, at times, a very tedious process, motivation came from the knowledge that without funding UNICEF Canada would not be able to play their part in a project which had the potential to save the lives of thousands of children and which in turn would help to promote regional stability in areas torn apart by years of conflict. Furthermore, it was vital to approach only organisations which were likely to provide funding as each funding application could take several hours and in some cases a few days to complete.
After a few days I was asked to work alongside a group which was working on a project involving the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The Optional Protocol raised the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities to 18 from the previous minimum of 15 and prohibited the compulsory recruitment by government forces of anyone under the age of 18. UNICEF Canada wanted to rewrite it into child friendly language, suitable for a Canadian audience. The text would then be used on promotional and informative materials.
Not long after completing the Optional Protocol project I returned to the UK to complete my dissertation. I had chosen to examine the international response to the plight of child soldiers in Africa and parts of the Asia Pacific. I read and researched everything that was out there, to the point that I could read one article or book and immediately tell you who or what the authors were referring to without looking at their references.
My experience in an office setting, although very enjoyable and productive, signalled to me that a desk job was perhaps not for me but I knew that, for various reasons, a career in field aid work wouldn’t be possible. I decided to pursue teaching and so I spent the next year training as a primary school teacher, specialising in ages 4-7. I was very conscious of wanting to make use of my experiences with UNICEF Canada as far as possible through my new career and so I chose to work in inner city schools with children from a broad range of backgrounds, including children who have been forcibly displaced by conflict in their own countries.
I have recently come to the conclusion that teaching in the UK puts more emphasis on the acquisition and application of grammatical rules than it does on the social and emotional welfare of children and this is as much of an issue for children in “leafy lane” suburbian schools as well as for children who are new arrivals to the country. Therefore, I have taken the decision to stop teaching, at least for now, and to get back to what I originally wanted to do – to be involved in the work of any organisation which puts the welfare of children involved in conflict at its heart.