"I think that at different stages of life, we need to continually adjust our commitments to find a balance that is aligned with our values and priorities."
Mia Dambach, Co-Founder and Executive Director for Child Identity Protection, on her work as a children’s solicitor in Australia, why ensuring children’s identity protection worldwide is important and the role of her many backgrounds in her daily life.
Dear Mia, you have studied at University of Sydney were you did a Bachelor in Law and a Bachelor in Commerce with a triple major in accounting, marketing and economics before doing your Master of Laws (LL.M.). How did you end up volunteering at a local children’s court during your studies?
While I was studying law at the University of Sydney, I wanted to gain some work experience to confirm my desire to work with children. I contacted the local children's court closest to the University to see if they needed any administrative help, which would give me the opportunity to watch the closed proceedings. They offered me work, archiving and writing letters to the children following a decision by the children's court magistrate. This allowed me to get a first-hand look at the cases and types of sentences children were given for different offences. Eventually, they allowed me to be a children's court monitor/officer, which is the person who runs the court in terms of saying "silence, please, all stand" when the children's magistrate enters and leaves the court and also records the different proceedings. After a few months, one of the paid staff went on maternity leave and the Children's Court offered me a part time paid position that I could carry out whilst finishing my law degree. This experience confirmed my desire to work as a children's lawyer as well as to learn the different ways that children could be defended well in court.
In 2008, you joined the International Social Service (ISS) as a children’s right specialist and became the director of ISS/IRC in 2015. How did you acquire the (non-legal) skills that this position required?
I acquired non-legal skills through different channels, for example, by watching other lawyers and how they interacted with children and their families. I have also been very fortunate to be able to work with some legends in children's rights such as Nigel Cantwell, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and many others who are now special advisors for Child Identity Protection, which has created opportunities to bounce ideas off them and learn from their decades of experience. My husband, who manages a large team of professionals, likewise provides support based on his experience with management and soft skills, troubleshooting, etc. However, I have to say that non-legal skills are likewise learnt "on the go", from making mistakes, the desire to continually improve and through the alignment of my work practices with my values.
Last year, you founded Child Identity Protection, an NGO with the mission to protect childrens’ identity rights, including name, nationality and family relations. You believe that you are not a risk-taker. What happened in order for you to take the leap?
Providentially, all the stars were aligned that gave four colleagues the amazing opportunity to continue our decade long collaboration and friendship to use our expertise to work in a domain that has received little attention to date – the child's right to identity, with a focus on preserving family relations. We were also well supported by experts such as Nigel Cantwell, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and others who are now special advisors for Child Identity Protection. We shared the "concept" with different experts and partner organisations, who agreed that there was a pressing need and therefore we took the leap together, to live this common dream. I was inspired by the following quote of Eleanor Roosevelt: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams".
After completing your studies in Australia, you worked for five years as a children’s lawyer in NSW. What exactly were your tasks and what did you like most about that time?
As a children's lawyer, I worked first in a legal community centre in the outer suburbs of Sydney on civil and administrative law issues. For example, I represented children who had been discriminated due to their disability or due to their gender (for example, a young lady was pregnant and thus fired from her position). I then worked as a children's lawyer with Legal Aid NSW, defending children in criminal law matters from petty offences, such as trespassing or shoplifting, to more serious offences, such as those leading to grievous bodily harm or even death. I was the duty solicitor in the children's court and would have to represent any child requiring a lawyer, for example with bail applications, hearings and submissions on sentences. Part of my responsibilities likewise involved visiting detention centres, participating in law reforms and providing training to lawyers, police, court support staff, juvenile justice officers, often working in the rural areas. What I loved most about this time was the daily contact with children and seeing concrete changes in individual lives. I thoroughly enjoyed working with dedicated colleagues and the adrenalin associated with a fast-moving court environment.
In 2007, you moved to Switzerland to work for UNICEF as an intern. After five years of working as a children’s solicitor in Australia you had to start again in the job market in Switzerland at the entry level. How did you experience this time?
As my entire network of children's rights professionals was in Australia, I had to start from scratch when I moved to Switzerland. This was at times humbling and intimidating given that I was "lost" among the highly professional and international crowd in Geneva. So, I decided to offer my time to a cause and organisation that I believe in by doing an internship – UNICEF. I could learn from their work and it also gave me an opportunity to network. I loved the "international" work, which was very different from the court work and individual contact during my time as a children’s solicitor. The learning curve about the UN, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child and Human Rights Council, was very steep. During this time, I had the amazing opportunity to work with UNICEF as it lobbied for the UN Guidelines on the alternative care of children – a soft law for the entire world. This position with a reputable organisation opened up other work possibilities.
As part of your work at the ISS, you set up a massive open online course about Children on the Move, which was taken by about 30’000 people. Could you tell us about the things you learned and the challenges you encountered?
The MOOC on children on the move was an amazing opportunity to provide a free online course to those working in alternative care and humanitarian response, address gaps in the knowledge, skills and capacities of front line workers, volunteers, policy makers and others, who have a responsibility and interest in protecting and promoting appropriate care for unaccompanied and separated children on the move. The course provided dynamic course content, informed by the expertise and first-hand experience of children and young people, professionals, volunteers and academics from a host of leading international organisations and institutions – including UN agencies, the University of Strathclyde and FXB Harvard.
The initial challenge was to get funding for the "idea", but with each organisation contributing available resources, this was attractive for a larger donor, the Swiss government. An important lesson for me was moving forward in small steps with the idea, despite the long path ahead to finalise the project. For example, even when some individuals did not support the initial idea for the MOOC, it was important to get the support of "key movers" to continue the momentum. Eventually those who were less supportive joined the "party" when they saw the project was moving ahead anyway. In relation to this I like the quote of Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway". Bringing together the breadth and depth of experience of these experts made for an exceptional course and led to the widest possible dissemination of the course in English, Spanish, French and Arabic with around 30 000 participants.
You do not believe that one can have everything. How do you and your husband organise your work with your children, especially taking into consideration that you both travel a lot for work (without the pandemic)?
I think that at different stages of life, we need to continually adjust our commitments to find a balance that is aligned with our values and priorities. I have always been passionate about working on children's rights and I have had the privilege of working in many different country contexts. However, when we were blessed with children, it was important for us as a family to invest in the two lives that were part of our family. It was difficult for me to justify someone else caring for our own children, when I was out "caring" for other people's children. At the same time, I also wanted to continue working and keep abreast the latest developments in children's rights. So, we found a balance that worked for our family, where I worked part time (most of the time remotely even before the pandemic), and at the same time, being home for the children on most days of the week. I actually love the Swiss system where the children come home for lunch and can have their friends over, while still working in an international context. Our general principle is that either myself or my husband is available for the children, so when international travel comes to the agenda for either of us, we regularly have "planning" meetings to organise, for example, who will be home. The aim is that, where possible, our diaries are aligned and that we have the external support that we need. When the children were very young, we had a nanny (grandmother role model) that would help us out in our home one day per week.
In your career, you have conducted a lot of field assessments/qualitative research and provided technical assistance, such as law reform and training, in over 20 different countries, including Cambodia, Denmark, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Ukraine, Viet Nam, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. You yourself have an Australian, Philippine and Swiss background. What role do different cultures play in your life?
I think having so many backgrounds helps me have a more open mind in terms of how people live and provides me with a wider bandwidth of tolerance. My father taught us to love travelling and to learn about different cultures, as they enrich the way we live domestically but also professionally. It means that there isn't only one way of achieving the set goal, although I must admit, I have some work to do on this. I think it's great when a promising practice from a developing country can be used to improve the practices of a developed country. For example, I think that countries can learn a lot about preventing baby abandonment with the work of social workers at Angkor Wat Children's hospital. My mother taught me the importance of education and working hard, which I think is an important work ethic in the human rights environment.
How do you cope with all the atrocities and injustices around children that you encounter in your work?
They inspire me to continue working and doing my part, to prevent these injustices and if possible, help with identifying remedies.
What are the downsides of working in children’s rights, a very political field, if any?
There are not many downsides of working in this field – but I have never regretted it. For lawyers who are interested in making a monetary fortune, work in children's rights is not well ranked. However, for me, working to improve the lives of children and access to their rights gives me enormous job satisfaction and I am really privileged to say that I love my work.
What are the future or new challenges that arise around identity rights and how do you wish to tackle them through the work of Child Identity Protection?
Every year, millions of children are deprived of their identity. Millions are not registered at birth and even when they are, fundamental information is missing about their origins, such as who is the child's mother or father. Likewise, millions of children have had their identity falsified or illicitly modified due to issues such as corruption, trafficking, harmful traditional practices and emergency situations.
Without an identity, children invariably face problems accessing basic rights such as education, health, development, social services, and they are also at greater risk of being sold and trafficked. These problems have a lifelong impact on the child and future generations. This is particularly true when considering the child's family relations, a constitutive element of identity.
Child Identity Protection works with states, international organisations and other stakeholders to uphold the child's right to know their origins. We will carry out this work through technical support, research, advocacy, Experts CHIP In series and other initiatives to improve the lives of millions.
What advice would you give young professionals that envisage a career in the field of children’s rights?
I would encourage students to get as much work experience as possible, especially during their long summer holidays. I would encourage new graduates to apply for internships where they can broaden their networks and can implement some of the theories they have learnt. I would encourage young professionals to work for the "cause" as their priority and worry less about their visibility – as every employer is looking for not only someone who is technically competent but also has soft skills and values beyond their personal interests.
Which female lawyer would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and for which reasons?
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio is my superstar, as I think she is for many young female lawyers. As the first lady Deputy Secretary General for the Council of Europe, she spearheaded many regional instruments and cleared the way for many females. As the UN Special Rapporteur on sale and sexual exploitation of children, I was always impressed by her bravery and focus on preventing the sale of children in all contexts, even when she was criticised by those making money from these practices. She has become a great support for our work now, as President of Child Identity Protection, and it is an honour beyond words to work with someone who lives by the values embedded in international standards. After more than four decades of dedication to human rights, she still dreams about how she can help children, with an unbeatable energy and dedication.
Thank you very much for your time and this interview!
Geneva, 1st of November 2021. The questions were prepared by Audrey Canova and were answered in writing.
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