Thank you for inviting me to speak at this important conference on children’s rights and the prevention of child poverty. A conference discussing policies, strategies, regulations and access issues to ensure that the rights of children are met. So, I thought I’d share a story with you....
There is nothing poetic about child poverty, but sometimes literature can give a voice to the voiceless. Often when we think of child poverty our thoughts go to children starving in Africa, but child poverty does not just exist in poor countries. There is not only great disparity of wealth amongst the countries of Europe but, also amongst the people of the countries of Europe.
The story I want to share with you illustrates my last point, that wealth and poverty often live side-by-side. It is the story of "The Little Match Girl" by the well-known Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening – the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet.
From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose. Families and friends were together celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Freezing in the chilling winter cold, she curls up in a corner formed by two houses, not daring to go home, as she had not sold any matches. She dares to light a match and it was a warm, bright flame like a candle. With each match she lights she experiences a moment of warmth and glowing visions in the flames; of an iron stove with a burning fire, a Christmas tree and a Holiday feast.
But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks, leaning against the wall – frozen to death on the last evening of the old year
I am sure we can all agree that it is not unreasonable for a child to wish for an adequately heated home, a proper meal or even the modest luxury of a Christmas tree. But in the story, the home, the meal and the tree are all out of reach for the little match girl.
The story of Hans Christian Andersen is more than one hundred and fifty years old, but child poverty is still a problem in Europe: In the midst of the generally high living standard of European households, children continue to suffer from poverty and lack of social protection.
They might not be selling matches anymore, but some children still struggle hard to get even the most basic daily necessities. Some children collect copper or scrap metal; some beg or hustle in the streets. Some children are just plain out of sight; marginalised and isolated from society. And often, poverty is not their only problem. Sadly, it is accompanied by the lack of adequate education, the lack of proper health care and the lack of participation in normal children’s activities. It is accompanied by loneliness and exclusion.
This shows us that fighting child poverty requires a broad and all-encompassing approach. It requires a joint and dedicated effort.
That is why it is so pleasing to see all of you here today. By participating in this conference it is clear that you all share the common ambition of fighting child poverty and helping disadvantaged children to fulfill their potential.
The thought of children suffering is absolutely heartbreaking. And I am certain that the thought of the wasted lives of children who never really get a chance in life is unbearable for us all. Therefore, I hope you will approach this challenge and this conference with ceaseless energy and determination.
“She wanted to warm herself”, said the people that found the poor little match girl. They did not know the extent of her short life of suffering.
Making child poverty a thing of the past will not happen tomorrow or the day after that. But one step closer to that goal is better than standing still. Let’s make Europe a happy and safe place for all children to grow up in.