Susan Bissell





A native of Canada, Susan has served UNICEF for over 25 years, working primarily in the area of Child Protection, a sector which has seen tremendous changes and maturation over the last two decades, and one which she has been actively involved in shaping, within the organization.

Susan began her career with UNICEF in 1987 in New York, in what was then called the Division of Information and Public Affairs, and which is now known as the Division of Communication

After returning to the University of Toronto to complete a Master’s degree in law, economics and international relations, Susan resumed working with UNICEF, in Sri Lanka focusing on children in especially difficult circumstances (CEDC), in the context of the country’s on-going civil war. 

From there Susan moved to Bangladesh, maintaining her concentration on CEDC work, fusing it with a ‘rights approach’. Here, she positioned UNICEF’s response to child labour at a time when it was attracting significant international attention.

In 1997, Susan returned to academia, gaining a doctoral degree in public health and medical anthropology at the WHO Key Center for Women’s Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Melbourne.  While completing her doctorate, and inspired by her experiences in Bangladesh, Susan also worked with Trudie Styler and the Bangladeshi film team Catherine and Tareque Masud to produce "A Kind of Childhood.", an internationally acclaimed documentary which follows several children over a period of six years to focus on the realities of child labor, with real children, their struggles and dreams. The film screened widely at film festivals in North America, Europe, and Asia, and appeared on Canadian, American, and British television and was awarded the Jury Prize at International Video Festival of India in 2003. In 2005, it had a second screening at the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Susan came back to UNICEF in 2001 as the Chief of Child Protection in India, a component of UNICEF’s largest country programme in the world, working on a range of issues including child labour, children in conflict with the law, child trafficking and children’s rights.

In 2004, she moved to the Innocenti Research Center in Florence, UNICEF’s ‘think tank’ on children’s issues, where she led a research unit and a number of studies.  These included a 62-country study on the implementation of the general measures of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and global research on the Palermo Protocol and child trafficking.  Susan was also a member of the Editorial Board of the report of the UN Secretary General’s groundbreaking Study on Violence Against Children, released in 2006 - the first time that an attempt has been made to document the reality of violence against children around the world, and to map out what is being done to stop it.

In 2009, Susan was appointed to her current position in New York, heading all of UNICEF’s Child Protection work.  Here she oversees a team of dedicated professionals guiding UNICEFs efforts for children in situations of armed conflict and natural disaster, as well as in development contexts.  Children and armed conflict, justice for children, child labour, inter-country adoption, child trafficking, small arms and land mines, and violence in its broadest contexts are among the ‘issues’ covered. 

UNICEF is active in child protection in 170 countries, and the New York team offers leadership, strategic vision, and technical support. The organization recently launched a new global initiative to ‘End Violence against Children’ which builds on the growing consensus worldwide that violence against children must stop and to show that solutions exist.

Susan was recently awarded an honorary Professorship at Barnard College/Columbia University.  She also received the Dr. Jean Mayar Global Citizenship Award from Tufts University in 2012, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.  Susan was honoured to accept these awards on behalf of her UNICEF Child Protection colleagues around the world.


Director's Note

Susan was one of the very first people— more than six years ago, now— that I started talking to about Not My Life when it became apparent that the project would become a reality. Susan gave me some passwords to her very agile mind, and invited me as a friend into her very big heart, with the result that she has been, and remains, an integral, generous, and inspiring member of the Not My Life family. Among her many contributions to Not My Life over the years, what I appreciate most about Susan is how utterly dedicated and passionate she is about the reality of violence against children in the world today, and the importance of child protection. As much as Susan has seen over her many years of service to UNICEF, and as much as she has learned, she remains, literally, incredulous that we live in a world where, as we say in Not My Life’s narration, billions of dollars are earned each year “on the backs and in the beds of our plant’s youth.
— Robert Bilheimer