Where do the children play? | Pauline Miceli

Are our children paying the price for excessive urbanisation? Are they being exploited (even unwittingly) by a culture that is increasingly being commodified? Children’s Commissioner PAULINE MICELI warns against robbing Malta’s children of their childhood

Children's Commissioner Pauline Miceli
Children's Commissioner Pauline Miceli

Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) may not have had Malta in mind when he wrote that song more than 30 years ago; but if you listen to it today, the lyrics seem singularly apt to the local situation. 

Our buildings may not exactly ‘crack the sky’ with scrapers… yet… but they certainly seem to be gobbling more and more of our already very limited public space. And while our roads do not ‘go on and on’ indefinitely… the traffic that now congests them certainly does, with increasingly harmful effects on our physical and (some might argue) even psychological health.

Above all, the resounding question asked in the chorus seems to strike a particularly relevant chord in 21st century Malta. Where do the children play? I am old enough to remember a time when the answer was fairly straightforward. Out in the street, of course… at a time when cars were few and far between: far enough to also double up as impromptu ‘goalposts’ for street football matches. 

All that seems a long time ago now. Any child who tried playing football in the streets would most likely end up as another traffic accident statistic. Meanwhile, what passes for ‘public spaces’ in local communities are, often as not, sterilised and sanitized beyond all reason. Public gardens and parks, for instance, are dotted with the ubiquitous signposts to prohibit anything, football to Frisbees to even bicycles.

But before getting to these and other issues, there is a more pressing concern. Late last year, an accident at a Paceville nightclub exposed more than just a certain laxity in health and safety standards across the board; it also laid bare the prevalence of underage minors in an entertainment district that is now very emphatically geared up for adults only.

Children’s Commissioner Pauline Miceli recently sounded the alarm over the issue: not so much because children seem to frequent this area when it is very clearly an inappropriate environment for them…. but more because, given the lack of alternatives, they don’t really have all that much choice.

Here, too, Cat Stevens’ question seems relevant. So I may as well ask it directly to Pauline Miceli, who is sitting across a desk from me at the Children’s Commission office in Santa Lucija.

Where do the children play?

“Ideally, not in a place like Paceville,” comes the prompt reply. “Paceville has changed a lot in character over the years. It was never a suitable environment for young teenagers to begin with. But now it has become a place where there are a lot of ‘gentleman’s clubs’, which can almost be talked of as ‘traps’ for young adolescents. Clearly, the place targets a more adult market today… which also means that the younger generation has been left with nowhere to go. We have to think seriously about creating alternatives to Paceville; alternatives which provide a safer environment for younger people.”

Sporadic attempts have been made over the years to address this issue. One of the more successful ones was the ‘skatepark’ that now occupies the derelict roundabout at Tal-Qroqq, close to the University. Is this the sort of thing she has in mind?

“Up to a point yes. But I’m not sure how suitable the one you refer to actually is. The problem with that area is that it is surrounded by roads on all sides; which also means it is exposed to traffic and fumes all day long. It might not be the healthiest place for youngsters to gather in. But yes, we certainly need to create more spaces like that, where teenagers can vent their energies…”

However, it seems we are almost moving in the opposite direction. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of an investment project involving (for example) a new supermarket or petrol station… yet how many times do we hear of a project to create urban open spaces which can be used for cycling, skateboarding, rollerblading and similar activities? Is enough effort being made in this direction?

“Perhaps not enough, no. Perhaps we are not sufficiently aware of the importance of such things; even in local communities. One thing that has happened in recent years is that children – not just teenagers, but also small children – can no longer play in the streets, like they used to. It is not only a problem in Malta: all countries face it, to a greater or lesser degree. The trend is now to create pedestrian zones which are suitable, not just for children, but also for adults… for the community as a whole. The communal spaces we used to enjoy have now been taken over by cars. It is the motorised vehicle that has taken possession of our towns and villages. In many parts of Europe there is now a concerted effort is to reclaim those spaces…in Malta, not so much.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been some success stories in this regard. The pedestrianisation of Bisazza Street in Sliema, for instance, may have caused teething problems and exacerbated traffic in surrounding streets; but there can be little doubt that the community has benefitted from the resulting public space. 

All the same, however, in most communities the streets and squares remain very firmly the domain of the almighty automobile. “We have to make a conscious, determined effort to regain more space. Playing fields, for instance, are designed for little children; and they are used by little children, in all localities. But because there are no other alternatives for slightly older children, you also get teenagers frequenting the same areas. Nothing essentially wrong with that, but… why are there so few places intended for that age-group? How can we expect our youth to grow up in a healthy, communal environment, if we don’t actually provide them with anywhere to entertain themselves?”

Again, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. One particularly noticeable aspect of Maltese public spaces is the almost military regimentation through which their use is governed. Visit almost any public garden in any part of Malta, and the first thing you are almost certain to see is a notice listing out all the activities that cannot take place there.

These will usually include all the things that people in other countries go to public gardens specifically to do: including, as earlier mentioned, playing football and riding bicycles.  

“I agree. Unfortunately, local councils are not always aware of such issues. I was in a council until recently, and I used to push these issues a lot. There are other entities, too. For instance, Sports Malta. We have a serious problem with obesity in Malta; among other health issues related to lack of exercise. But are there enough facilities to address these problems? I, for example, am a member of the National Pool… but the time windows available when I can actually use that facility are very limited. There are too many people trying to use too few facilities. More sports facilities have to be in place: not just swimming pools, naturally, but even – or especially – places where children can ride bicycles…”

Cycling is of particular importance, because apart from constituting healthy exercise in its own right, it also offers a cleaner alternative to our national addiction to motor vehicle-use (with all the associated problems of traffic and pollution). “Ideally we should be encouraging a culture of bicycle-use as much as possible. Instead we are doing the opposite… we are creating obstacles, or limiting the space where bikes can be used…”

In the absence of State (or local council) provided facilities, it often falls to individual community efforts to provide such alternatives.

“One thing that impressed me recently was an activity held in Mosta. There is a pedestrianised pjazza by the Church, and on this occasion it was full of young people playing traditional Maltese games with children… skipping, hopscotch, that sort of thing. At first I thought it was an event organised by the local council; but when I asked I discovered it was an initiative organised by a voluntary group…”

The group turned out to be one of the smaller local Christian churches. “It wasn’t a religious event as such. The organisers weren’t preaching… even though, if you spoke to them, then yes, they would bring up their views on religion. Not with the children, however. And there was no money collected, either. They even provided a carwash service for free. When I asked why they did all this, they replied that they wanted to help out… to offer a service to the community…”

It was a much-appreciated service, too.

“People gravitated there; children played games and had fun…. There was a lovely atmosphere. What made it stand out, however, was that it was a case of individuals wanting to be part of the community, and doing something for the benefit of the community they are part of. A community within a community…”

Traditionally, in fact, it has always fallen to religious organisations to organise activities for youngsters. In the years when there no other denominations of Christianity present on the island (to speak of, at any rate) it was usually the MUSEUM or some other, Church-affiliated organisation.

This raises the question of whether Malta can afford to continue relying almost exclusively on such private initiatives… especially at a time of increased plurality in religion. 

“What I would like to see is more public spaces made available, so that anyone else who would like to organise community activities can do so. We need to start building our communities from the ground up. We have to regain the streets and squares as our own. But of course, I am aware that there are difficulties. If you try closing a street or square to traffic, people might complain… there’s always tension between the business community, for instance, or commuters who drive through the locality, and the wider community itself. It’s not easy to reach a compromise. But we really need to raise awareness on the need for more spaces for young people. Something needs to be done about it.”

This is not the only problem the Children’s Commissioner has recently voiced concern over. Moving away from the question of ‘where children play’, there is the more sinister question of how safely they can play. Not just with regard to obvious physical dangers such as cars on the road… but, more insidiously, the hidden dangers through which children can (often unwittingly) find themselves the objects of exploitation or even abuse.

One issue that Miceli has often raised concerns the representation of children on the media, both on and offline. Recently, for instance, she complained about the blatant use of children as fund-raising tools during charity events.

“It worries me to see advertisements in which children are blatantly used to engender emotions of sympathy. A sick or underprivileged child being used to raise money for charity, for instance. It makes me very uncomfortable. Are we going back to a time when children were trotted out with begging bowls in the street?”

Miceli points out how that kind of advertising reminds her of stories she heard from people who were raised as children in institutions. “Some of those stories were shocking. There was one woman who told me that the nuns used to take her out as a child – and they chose her because she was blonde and sweet-looking – so that people would take pity on her, and give more donations to the institute. There were others who even said their ability to eat depended on how much money they could raise by begging. Can you believe it?”

This was, admittedly, in an age before social welfare. “But it didn’t necessarily end with the advent of social welfare. In Gozo especially, this used to happen until fairly recently: children were forced to go out with begging bowls. So is this what we’re going back to do with this kind of advertising? Because ultimately, it is really just begging… literally begging.”

Meanwhile, there are other less literal forms of ‘begging’. Some time back, one of Miceli’s predecessors had complained about the use of children in political campaigns. There was one specific billboard in the 2008 election with the face of a child (also blonde and sweet-looking, come to think of it) to which she had particularly objected, on the basis that – in a political culture as perniciously confrontational as Malta’s – the child could conceivably be ‘targeted’ as a result.

Have any regulations been drawn up to prevent this since then? 

“More than regulations, what is needed are clear guidelines. But no, there still aren’t any today. By the next election, however, this will have changed. Our attention has been drawn to this, by a person (active in politics) who recently told me: if you want us to follow guidelines by the next elections, they will have to be drawn up now. After this year it will be too late… because preparations for the campaigns: marketing, billboards and so on, will begin soon…” 

So has work on these guidelines already begun?

“Yes. We have applied with the standards authority, and the ball has been set rolling. If all goes well, hopefully we’ll have the guidelines in place by the time the election campaign begins.” 

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