Hollywood star Michael Sheen delivered an impassioned speech to parliamentarians this week on his experiences as a Unicef UK ambassador.
The Welsh actor was speaking to promote the charity’s
Children in Danger campaignto tackle violence against children around the world.
Unicef UK published a landmark report in October 2014 revealing that every five minutes a child dies as a result of violence, and that the majority of these deaths take place outside of conflict.
Mr Sheen said that “in some ways we are more accepting of the idea that children are going to be the victims of violence in conflict, during conflict or in an area where there is conflict going on.
“But the hidden epidemic of violence… is where children are experiencing violence, sexual violence and exploitation, abuse, trafficking in the places where they should feel safest; in the home, in schools, in communities and by the people who should be protecting them and that is the most shocking thing.”
He recounted a recent trip to Guatemala, his first as an official Unicef UK ambassador, and the harrowing stories that he had heard.
He recalled visiting a refuge centre supported by Unicef which cares for victims of abuse and provides legal support, psychosocial rehabilitation and social reinsertion.
There Mr Sheen met two teenage girls, one of whom had a child of her own as a result of being raped.
As a father himself, he said he could not “help but make a connection that this is a girl my daughter’s age,” and described the encounter as “quite shocking.”
Another moment in the refuge that was particularly upsetting for the actor, was the discovery of a dolls house, which he mistook for a toy but later found out was being used to facilitate the discussion of abuse by the residents.
“This dolls house was not for the girls to play with. It was for the girls to be able to describe where in the house they had been abused and that was a moment where the reality really hits you,” he said.
Despite the overwhelming distress and trauma that Mr Sheen observed, he was keen to trumpet the progress that was being made in the region.
He welcomed the use of Gesell chambers, which he saw in action during his visit and are an initiative championed and supported by Unicef.
Gesell chambers allow victims of abuse to tell their story once in a calm environment with the guidance of a psychologist, while legal teams gather evidence behind a two way mirror.
The process means that the children do not have to recall the traumatic events repeatedly during a stressful judicial process, and has been successful in encouraging more victims to come forward.
Resources like these are especially necessary in Guatemala, which is one of the most dangerous countries for children in the world, with the second highest rate of child murder worldwide according to Unicef’s report Hidden in Plain Sight.
Every two hours a new case of sexual violence against a child is reported in the country, yet few cases ever get to court.
“It’s not something that should just be accepted,” Mr Sheen said, “whether it’s by people in the country itself or the people in the surrounding countries, and Britain has to be a pathfinder country in terms of putting out a message that says this is not acceptable.
“It is preventable and the work that is being done in those places needs to be supported.
“Which is why making sure that having a robust target for ending violence against children needs to be an absolute focus in the Sustainable Development Goals, not only for the direct work it can do but for the message it sends out to the rest of the world.”
Tackling violence against children was absent from the Millennium Development Goals, which were established in 2000 and are due to expire at the end of this year.
Unicef UK is looking to the new set of Sustainable Development Goals to make this issue an international priority over the next fifteen years.
The charity is calling for the inclusion of a target to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children by 2030
The organisation is urging the UK government to play its role by championing the target, as well as building political momentum by engaging with other countries and partners to develop a global partnership focused on protecting children from violence.
Mr Sheen said: “If we can’t help the most vulnerable members of not only our own country but of the world then we have no right to call ourselves civilised…
“They are the people that are going to be living in this world and being the leaders and being the citizens of the future when we are not here anymore.
“That is the only way to think about sustainability. It’s about generations to come.
“We want to have cross-party support to be able to say, ‘yes we are with Unicef UK’.”
The actor’s words resonated with the distinguished audience of stakeholders, MPs and peers, many of whom were clearly moved during the address.
Caroline Nokes Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North said: ‘Michael Sheen is a fantastic advocate for children and for Unicef UK’s Children in Danger campaign. Committing to help end violence against children around the world is something that all parties should support. I’m proud to be one of Unicef UK’s Parliamentary Champions and to offer my full support for this important campaign.”
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: “The message is important but the medium through which the message is given also matters and whether you are a fan of the Frost film or the Blair stuff or Twilight then Michael Sheen has a way of cutting through where other people can’t. The same goes for Doreen Lawrence [Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon who also spoke at the event].
“The reality is, I suspect, that most people that will hear the Unicef campaign theme via Michael Sheen probably wouldn’t have heard it otherwise, which can only be a good thing.”
Former Labour party leader Lord Kinnock, whose wife Baroness Kinnock is also very involved with the charity, described the involvement of the actor as “a huge bonus not simple because he is galactically famous but because he is absolutely authentic. It goes right to the centre of him and he manifests that in so many ways.
“He is fluent and he is not afraid to be passionate and passion is essential to ignite the flames in other people.
“He would be a very good MP, I am certain,” Lord Kinnock added.
The CEO of Unicef UK David Bull praised Mr Sheen for his commitment to the organisation and the issue of violence against children “Michael is a fantastic Ambassador for Unicef UK. He is well informed, he takes the time to really learn the issues and he conveys the stories in a really passionate way.”
He said: “I have spent the last couple of days with Michael and it’s been amazing to see the impact he has because he is such a well-known figure , so well respected and speaks with such passion.
“We have met with the Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Secretary of State for International Development to secure their support for a global target to end violence against children. Michael has written for the Telegraph, and given interviews to an array of broadcasters from the Andrew Marr Show to This Morning. Our hope is that all this will build support to make ending violence against children worldwide a priority for the next UK government.”
To read more about Unicef UK's campaign, click