Northern Ireland’s commissioner for children and young people, Koulla Yiasouma, on how she’s kept children’s rights in people’s minds during some uniquely turbulent times.
In March 2023, after eight years as Northern Ireland’s commissioner for children and young people (NICCY), Koulla Yiasouma will be stepping down. The circumstances of her time in the role – some unique to Northern Ireland – have required all her dedication, passion and patience.
‘My job is to hold our government and all its various bodies to account on the implementation of children’s rights,’ Koulla says. ‘So my success is dependent on how we can make changes by influencing other people. In my previous roles working with children, I could understand success much more easily because we could directly see the effect we were having on people. This role is much bigger and I’ve had to learn a lot. It’s been the privilege of a lifetime, but it’s also been quite sobering.’
The post-Brexit political deadlock in the province, which has seen the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive effectively become unable to function, has exacerbated Koulla’s frustration.
‘The sweeping fundamental changes that we need to see if we are really serious about improving things for our children just can’t be made,’ Koulla says.
‘For example, every single child who lives in poverty is having their life blighted – and in Northern Ireland that’s about 100,000 children [Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2022]. We need a good anti-poverty strategy that is properly resourced and has commitment across government. That cannot happen without an Executive or a cabinet.
‘We didn’t have a government for three years, then we had Covid, and now we’re back into not having a government. That is a long time for children to wait to get systemic change.’
After the pandemic started
Right now, that reference to Covid is important, with much of the office of NICCY’s recent work being focused on understanding the aftermath of the pandemic.
‘What you will find – worldwide – is that those children who were experiencing issues pre-Covid have been the most adversely affected during Covid,’ Koulla says. ‘Children living in poverty, children who were experiencing challenges in education, children who had mental health difficulties or who had families with mental health issues, children who had safeguarding concerns – those children were the priority pre-Covid, but they have become an even greater priority post-Covid. And they have been joined by a number of other children who became vulnerable during the pandemic.
‘In Northern Ireland, we have additional challenges. It’s well known that we have much higher levels of mental ill health, including among children and young people – it runs about 25% higher than in Great Britain [Ulster University, 2020] – and that is primarily down to the impact of our conflict. So while every child in Northern Ireland was born many years after the Good Friday Agreement, they are still affected by it because their families and their communities are still experiencing the impact of it.’
While circumstances may not have been favourable, Koulla and her team have been instrumental in making significant positive steps.
‘In the last few years, we’ve certainly seen a change of attitude to mental health, and particularly to children’s mental health. We’ve seen an understanding that more needs to be done and it needs to be done with children and young people themselves, and with their families,’ she says. ‘I was delighted when the Northern Ireland Government accepted the recommendations we made in our 2018 Still waiting report, and then introduced a system to implement those recommendations.
What you will find – worldwide – is that those children who were experiencing issues pre-Covid have been the most adversely affected during Covid
‘That’s now been subsumed into the overall mental health strategy for Northern Ireland, and we will hold government to account on those steps. That’s a real win and, while we’re not where we need to be, we are in a much, much better place than we were four or five years ago.’
When it comes to ‘like-minded folk’, Koulla is clear about the hugely important role that community practitioners (CPs) have.
‘CPs are the lifeline. They are the ones who do the small things that help families over bumps in the road. And when it’s more serious than just a bump in the road, we rely on CPs to spot the problem, to refer it on, or do whatever needs to be done,’ Koulla says.
‘In my view, the dismantling of universal services is a deep source of regret and also a false economy. All the things that I’ve talked about –mental health among the young, particularly safeguarding and child abuse and child protection, youth justice and children becoming involved with the criminal justice system – can all be positively affected by having good early intervention and prevention services in homes and with families, by a universal service that families won’t feel stigmatised by.’
The last seven years have not dimmed Koulla’s burning motivation to seek and demand change. But while Northern Ireland’s problems – both historic and more recent – are still a long way from being resolved, there is reason to smile.
‘People think of Northern Ireland as a bleak place where people are always fighting each other. There is a bit of that, but it’s only because the people here are passionate and they have a huge sense of community and family.
‘Northern Ireland’s children and young people in particular have the best sense of humour, and are more resilient and optimistic than anybody else in the world. So while I might be pessimistic about the shenanigans that are going on around our government and the Brexit protocol, this is a fantastic place with fantastic people – they just deserve better.’
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your career?
Patience and empathy. The ability to see the other person’s point of view, especially those in positions of power, is crucial. You need to understand who you are trying to influence.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I used to play women’s rugby at university – I even went on tour with the team to the Netherlands.
What are your plans after this role?
A bit of gardening, a bit of rest, and a big holiday!
What drives you?
Recognition that children are where they are by accident. I realise I was very lucky to be born into a family that were able to show their love for me and support me, but not everyone is that lucky.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2022) Poverty in Northern Ireland 2022. See: jrf.org.uk/report/poverty-northern-ireland-2022 (accessed 21 June 2022).
Ulster University. (2020) First ever survey of the mental health of children and young people in Northern Ireland supports the need for prevention and early intervention. See: ulster.ac.uk/news/2020/october/first-ever-survey-of-the-mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-northern-ireland-supports-the-need-for-prevention-and-early-intervention (accessed 21 June 2022).
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