Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, December 2012
"Of course, you know what a child is, don’t you?..." wrote Wendy Stainton Rogers, "...everyone was a child once upon a time, after all. You almost certainly know children- your neighbours’ children, those of family and friends, perhaps the children you care for or work with, and, possibly, your own children. So ‘childhood’ and ‘children’ are not obscure theoretical ideas for you: they are things you have experienced and, quite probably, play a part in your everyday life. But in some ways this familiarity is a disadvantage. When studying something abstract like physics or music, it’s not hard to realize that there are things about these subjects that you know nothing about and that you need to learn. But first-hand experience of children and childhood can make people think that they know what a child is already." (Understanding Childhood, An Interdisciplinary Approach)
Childhood is a unique experience shared by every individual on the planet regardless of their ethnicity, culture or any other arbitrary separator we choose to apply. As Wendy states in the above extract, each and every one of us has first-hand experience of being a child, but culture dictates that children themselves are a social-construct, separated into a category of humanity that almost assigns to them their own species. The anthropologist Margaret Mead noted herself that children are, "…pygmies among giants, ignorant among the knowledgeable, wordless among the articulate …And to the adults, children everywhere represent something weak and helpless, in need of protection, supervision, training, models, skills, beliefs, ‘character’." (Mead, 1955, p. 7)
It is perhaps this artificial separation of children into their own group that allows us to culturally justify the atrocities we commit against them. In our world, over 600 million children live in poverty, and over 11 million children die each year of largely preventable causes (around 21 each minute of every day). Our society uses over 250 million children as labourers (of which more than 125 million work in life-threatening environments). Between 80 and 93% of all our children suffer some form of physical punishment in their homes (a third of whom are violently abused with implements). The flaws in our culture mean that conservatively, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experience some form of forced sexual intercourse or violence each year- with over 1 million being physically sold into the sex trade. To put this in context, if we replace the word "children" with any other label (be it men, women, blacks, Asians or Hindus) and we quickly see the error in our perspectives.
In their 1997 book "Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood", Allison James and Alan Prout note that, "...the immaturity of children is a biological fact of life but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture. It is these 'facts of culture' which may vary and which can be said to make of childhood a social institution. It is in this sense, therefore, that one can talk of the social institution of childhood and of its re- and deconstruction. In this double sense, then, childhood is both constructed and reconstructed both for children and by children... "
So what is the true perception of children in our culture? and what is the scale of their plight in the modern world?
In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Carolyn Miles (President and CEO of Save the Children) and Dr. Jean Zermatten (Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child). We look at the plight of children worldwide- discussing issues ranging from poverty to exploitation, health to education, climate change to conflict, the media and more. We also look at the fundamental role of children in human progress, and why they are key to the future of our society.
Carolyn S. Miles is President & Chief Executive Officer for Save the Children, creating lasting change in the lives of more than 70 million children in need in the United States and 120 countries around the world.
Carolyn became the first woman to head Save the Children in September 2011, after joining the organization in 1998 and serving as its Chief Operating Officer for the past seven years. She has travelled to Save the Children’s field operations in nearly 50 countries, and during her tenure as COO Save the Children doubled the number of children it reaches with food, educational, and other programs, and helped grow the organization’s budget – 90 percent of which goes directly to programs serving children – from $140 million to more than $550 million. She has also emphasized the need to use social media and new technology to extend the organization’s reach and fully engage with Save the Children’s employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, donors, partners and others around the world. To this end, she launched her own blog, “Logging Miles,” and is committed to employing social media to extend Save the Children’s reach, building on such successes as its Twitter-based campaign that reached nearly 900 million people to raise awareness of the child hunger crisis in East Africa.
Dr Jean Zermatten is currently the Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Dr Zermatten has been a member of this Committee since 2005. He is a child rights’ lawyer.
He has a Doctor honoris causa from the University of Fribourg. After studying Law at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, he became a clerk, and later an ad hoc judge at the Criminal Court for Juveniles in Fribourg. Afterwards, he was appointed President and Dean of the Juvenile Court of the Canton of Valais where he worked for 25 years. In 2005, he founded the International Institute for the Rights of the Child which he still leads today. He is active in providing guidance and direction for academic programmes about children’s rights and protection. He was the President of the Swiss Society for Criminal Law for Juveniles as well as the President of the International Association of Magistrates for Youth and Family (IAMYF).
Q: What is the role of children in human progress?
[Carolyn Miles] Children are a measure of human progress.
You see that when children aren't a priority- and child mortality is high, school enrolment is low, literacy is low and so on- society held back. The amount of energy, time and effort that go into providing those basic rights for children is a real measure of a country's progress, and its level of development.
When you look at countries where there has been great success in moving these indicators, you see the effect it has on society. I was recently in Vietnam- the country is developing so rapidly, every time you visit- you see change accelerating. Child mortality rates have gone down dramatically- they're now 20:1000 which is in line with MDG4. The economy is having challenges, but is one of the ten fastest growing in the world. In Vietnam, they are changing those basic elements such as literacy, and you see the impact. There are still lots of very poor kids out in rural areas, but there is still a tonne of progress happening.
Looking at disparities is important. We've still got a big gap for girls- there are many places where development differences between girls and boys is vast. We know however, that educating a girl really drives a country's development. For every year a girl stays in school, she delays marriage and having children- which in turn, increases the health of her children. We have to pay a lot more attention to this issue.
Kids themselves can be real drivers of development. In Vietnam, we visited a child-club (which was child run!). These kids were doing disaster-preparedness work! Vietnam is a very disaster-prone country with typhoons, floods, landslides and more. These kids were actually developing disaster-response plans... they were taking these plans back to their families... they were taking these plans and presenting them to community leaders... it was inspiring.
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] We have to understand the new status of the child as being recognised as a person, with status, and rights and so on. A child is the most important person for the future of humanity.
There has been a change in the mentality of parents, communities and society to see children not just as objects, but as beneficiaries of society. We have been given a new child, and it is the responsibility of society that this new-person has to be put in a position where they can develop as people.
Q: To what extent are children recognised and protected by human rights law and other policy mechanisms?
[Carolyn Miles] Save the Children was founded in 1919, and in 1923 Eglantyne Jebb (our founder) wrote the world's first declaration on children's rights. That was the precursor to the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child. I am ashamed to say that all but two countries in the world- Somalia and the United States- have endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document states that every child has the right to a healthy life, deserves to survive their childhood, has the right to education and deserves to grow up in a world that cares about their rights.
Around the world, Save the Children spends a lot of time making sure that these rights are recognised and applied. It's not just about making sure we have this overarching international law, but making sure that local laws and policies uphold and defend those rights. We have been successful in a couple of areas. In education, you find that almost all countries have an education for all policy and law. Getting that to the point where every child goes to school, has a teacher and receives a quality education is a different process- but enshrining these rights into law is a first-step.
Children don't vote, and don't have access to traditional methods of having political power. Increasingly people are empowering kids to have a voice, to talk about the issues that matter to them and to talk about their rights. We do an advocacy day here in Washington, and the most impactful people we have going up on that hill with us are kids. The legislators do listen to what they say! Does this translate into policy changes? well... the messages certainly break through and it- at least- gets the issues heard.
Q: How does the poverty cycle impact children in the developed and developing world?
[Carolyn Miles] Children are the key to breaking the poverty cycle. Making sure that children survive, and ensuring they thrive (so that they are educated, and are able to get meaningful employment to support their families) is key. A generation of children who go through school to the 5th grade, versus a generation of parents who only got to the 2nd grade really does change a country.
Even in developed countries like the United States there are issues. Whether you measure as a percentage or an absolute number, there are more kids living in poverty in the United States now than at any point in the past twenty years. Around 16 million children live in poverty in the United States. This is not just about the overall development of a country.
We see a disparity emerging within countries between people who have access to healthcare, the resources for education and all those basic things required to ensure human development.
We did a study in the United States looking at the differences between a typical middle-class 4 year old, and a 4 year old who grew up in a poor community. We found the child from the poorer background was developmentally behind over 18 months than their middle-class counterpart. That's huge. If we don't catch those kids up, this difference will get much wider. We now operate pre-school and pre-pre-school (home visiting) programmes in poor communities to try and target poor families. These programmes run across the world, from the United States to Nepal. The pre-schools themselves may look a little different, but the concepts are the same- to get kids to a setting where they get used to the idea of school, begin literacy and numeracy, and gain social skills. This really works! In Mozambique for example, kids who go through pre-school programmes are over 24% more likely to enroll in primary school.
The way we are looking at the world is no longer in terms of developed and developing countries. There are poor children everywhere. The United States is one of the most developed countries in the world, but we have 16 million kids who are growing up in poverty. This poverty looks different to what you see in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it's still dramatically holding back a large number of children- and hence a large number of adults who will grow up likely to be in that same cycle of poverty.
Q: What are the key challenges to childhood development?
[Carolyn Miles] One of the things we've really learned is that starting early is important. Whether you are talking about education, nutrition, health or even the very basic concept of survival.
If you look at the number of kids that die of preventable causes before they reach 5 years old, 99% of them are in the developing world. Since 1990, that rate has been cut in half- from 12 million to 6 million. While we should not have any children dying of preventable causes, we're saving 6 million kids lives a year- and that's great progress.
As you drive that number down, you get more and more kids dying at the earlier ages. Around 50% of the 6 million children that die before they reach the age of 5, die in their first month of life. These are babies that are dying...
Why this happening? Mothers aren't being taken care of while they're pregnant, and many of the simplest interventions for newborns, such as ensuring babies are kept-warm and breast-fed for the first 6 months, are simply not happening. These are just two of the simple and inexpensive things that could save millions of babies from dying. Getting that education out is a big part of making change.
To be effective, you have to start as early as you can...
Q: What is the involvement of children in armed conflict?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] For a long-time, there was no real consideration of children in armed conflict. This was the first issue looked at by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1991. Previously there were many children involved in conflict, up-to 2 million have died in recent wars. We now have new instruments such as the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict which have dramatically reduced these numbers. I would estimate now that around 300,000 are involved in armed conflict. It's important to realise that it's not just children who are used as soldiers- but also children who are used as cooks, messengers and more. You also find that girls are used and abused by soldiers.
Our new concern is about security companies. They are not state-armed groups, and it's very difficult to tackle them. They often only involve adolescents. The same is true of criminal organisations such as the drug-gangs of Mexico who employ a lot of children in conflict. This is a big concern for the future...
Q: What is the impact of conflict on children's development?
[Carolyn Miles] A lot of our work in education has focussed on this specific are. We did a big piece of work ensuring that kids in conflict situations (who are living in refugee camps, or may be otherwise displaced by civil war and so on) continue to get education.
A lot of people still think this is a luxury when faced with a situation where children need food and shelter. Yes, I would agree that those things are needed- but you have to consider that many wars can last decades, and that means kids could lose 10-12 years of education. Over a decade long conflict, it is not uncommon for two cycles of kids to lose an education.
Children have the right to an education in all situations, even conflict. It's really hard to do, but it can- and must- be done.
Q: What is the scale and impact of the trafficking, sale and sexual exploitation of children?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] It's important to understand the difference between sale and trafficking.
Sale is the transfer of a human being with an exchange of money, but there is no necessity for that to be exploitative. A typical example would be sale through adoption, the sale of organs, or assisted procreation where you pay someone to transfer a baby to you.
Trafficking is the transfer of someone with the purpose of exploitation. Here we have the traditional form where you have girls trafficked for prostitution, or children and adolescents trafficked for forced labour. We also have a concern where people are trafficked through migration. Many parents may pay for their unaccompanied migrant children to go to another country where they are- unfortunately- exploited. This is not new, but the figures are growing.
Pornography is also a concern. There are concerns where children are used in pornography, but also where children are- through technology- able to access pornography. The digital world has also raised the new issue of cyber-grooming where children are solicited to have sexual relations with adults, or even with other children and adolescents.
We have a new optional protocol on this issue which has been ratified by many countries. It is the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography
Q: What is the plight of children being abused or marginalised in the domestic setting worldwide?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Violence is unfortunately one of the biggest problems we have. It was a taboo for many years, and people did not speak about domestic violence against children by those who were supposed to be protecting them. We did a study on violence in 2006 and now- 6 years later, the situation has not changed. We are more aware, but we do not see any progress.
While many states have criminalised these actions, violence against children is still tolerated by many cultures and countries- and this is a big concern for me. This is not just about physical violence, but also psychological and even sexual.
Q: What are the key health challenges facing children?
[Carolyn Miles] Just getting kids to survive is the key.
Getting the healthcare interventions to where kids and moms are is the biggest challenge. These are mostly rural areas where there are no healthcare systems, but can be urban too. Educating parents about what basic healthcare looks like for their kids is important in this regard too. It's not about knowing what to do- we know that- it's about physically getting these interventions to where they are needed.
There are also specific issues, in Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria continues to be a really big challenge- killing millions of kids each year. HIV/AIDS is another massive issue. There are 17 million orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS, about 3.5 million children that are living with AIDS and about 390,000 more are newly infected each and every year.
There is a lot more focus now on the child-issues in HIV/AIDS. Secretary of State Clinton just announced a "Blueprint for an AIDS free generation" - aiming to see a generation of kids who are not infected at all, and a generation who- if they are infected with HIV- do not develop AIDS as a result. This means the provision treatment, prevention and education and while it is certainly aspirational to aim for zero-infections, it shows that the issue is now gaining attention.
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Health is a major problem. We have a lot of children dying unnecessarily every day, every minute, ever second. Water and sanitation are behind a lot of these health problems, and this is a major challenge for the world. We have a lot of good practices in the elimination of disease through immunisation programmes. In many cases these diseases have very simple solutions, but they remain major causes of death- and that is unacceptable.
Q: Are there cultural practices which can impact the rights and situation of children?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] The main form is female genital mutilation, but there are others such as child-marriage and 'temporary marriage' where the tradition of marriage is used as a pseudo-excuse for prostitution.
If we use the example of female genital mutilation, we see that there is a strong-awareness of these issues but it is very difficult to eradicate. You can't just legislate and prohibit against these acts as they have a strong cultural basis, and the culture partaking in these acts believe they are doing so in the best interests of the child. We try to convince community leaders- be they religious or otherwise- to realise that their practices are harmful towards children. This is a long-fight, and it's very slow.
There is a lot of ignorance towards early-marriage. Often early-marriages take place due to poverty, as it may be the family's only chance for an income. They do this with a lot of ignorance toward the consequences.
Q: What are your concerns regarding children who are disabled or have mental-health issues?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first instrument to also include disability as a criteria for discrimination. With this and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities we have made a lot of progress.
Children with disabilities are often excluded, institutionalised, deprived of education, deprived of healthcare and more. We have to work towards their inclusion, particularly in education at the earliest stages. There may be certain cases where institutionalisation is necessary, but to be frank- it is not the case in most situations.
We have a big discrepancy between developed and developing world in this regard. I have just returned from Africa, and find the situation there- in the majority if countries- are such that there are no programmes or vision for disabled children.
In health in general we have an important discrepancy between the western world and rest of the planet!
Q: What are the challenges facing orphans and children without guardians?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] There are different causes for children becoming orphans. You have orphans from disaster (such as Haiti and the Philippines), and you also have orphans through health problems such as HIV/AIDS, and even conflict. It is difficult to quantify the exact numbers, and there is no clear international definition of 'what' constitutes a child being an orphan.
We know that mechanisms exist to take care of these children. Domestic and international adoption is the primary way to solve this problem. We do however, need very strong regulation. In Haiti for example, there have been many problems with international and illegal adoption. Even in France, there has recently been a trial where an association stole 103 children from Chad for 'adoption'! In these cases, institutionalisation of adoption is the last solution, but the aim is for family care. Solutions must be determined with each individual child in mind- each child's needs are different.
There are also a high number of children affected by migration. Many children are left-behind because their parents migrate. These children are not technically 'orphans' but are denied family because their families have left.
Q: How are children affected by phenomena such as climate change, natural disasters and economic crises?
[Carolyn Miles] Unfortunately it is often kids that die in natural disasters. During my recent visit to Vietnam there were flash-floods, and in one community there were 5 people drowned, 4 of them were children - they were simply not strong enough to survive. Incidents like this happen on a regular basis all along the coast and into the Mekong delta, almost certainly as a result of climate change.
As even the recent hurricane in the United States illustrated, it's almost always the poorest families- who can least afford to lose things- who are most affected by natural disasters. If you look at New York and where people lived whose homes got washed away, and who died? it was almost completely poor communities. It was akin to what you see in places like Bangladesh where the places most susceptible to cyclones are not where people would choose to live if they had another option....
The economic crisis has also pushed more families into a state where children become vulnerable. In some countries economic crisis and population growth have combined, meaning less land is available and people are pushed into more marginal places.
Alongside responding to emergencies, we're doing a lot of work on resiliency and disaster risk-reduction, getting communities prepared for disasters with adequate early warning, good evacuation plans, government support for the movement of people in emergency situations and so on.
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Unfortunately we have a lot of causes of concern for the plight of children.
Climate change has a direct impact on children. It impacts their health, and can cause migration due to hunger and areas becoming unsuitable for habitation. There are also indirect impacts. Migration and the need to leave one's country can lead to extreme poverty, hunger, and means that children may not have access to education, health services and more.
Natural disasters and climate change are highly linked. Every day we have the manifestation of the effects of climate change, and its provocation of natural disasters- such as what we have seen recently in the Philippines. There are many interesting high level conferences such as Rio and Doha, but the impression I get is that the planet is not taking climate change, and what it means for our children, very seriously.
The economic crisis has also created a big problem. The first few years of the millennium were not too bad, but since 2007 many budgets traditionally aimed at children- nutrition, education, security and so on- have been cut. In the short term this may not be very visible, but in the long term it will cost a lot.
Q: What are the realities of how gender-equality impacts childhood development?
[Carolyn Miles] It's still a really big issue in the developing world. A lot of work has been done in understanding the disparities between boys and girls, but there's still a huge gap.
There is a human-rights issue here, and one surrounding discrimination. Families may feel that if they only have a certain amount to invest in their children, they should invest in the boys. We are trying to change this by working with families to help them understand that that educated girls can go out and support whole families like boys can.
This is part of breaking the cycle of poverty. When you empower a girl by helping her to survive and get an education, her family is so much more likely to be in a better place than where they grew up.... it can really change things for the next generation.
Many studies have been done to show that when mothers are economically empowered, they invest in their children... providing better shelter, nutrition, education and so on.
Q: What is the role of parents in children's development?
[Carolyn Miles] This is critically important. Our focus is more on mothers than fathers- not because we don't like fathers- but because it's often that the mothers stay with children, while fathers go off working.
A lot of this is about changing cultural practices and norms. We also work with mother in-laws who are really important in these things...
Let me give you one example.... In Nepal, traditions are usually held by the mother in-law as the woman usually goes to live with her husband's family. The whole birthing practice is driven by the mother in-law. The tradition in Nepal is that birth is 'dirty' and should therefore take place in the dirtiest place in the home, often where animals are kept. There was a whole tradition were women were told to go out by themselves and have their babies in a barn.... Birthing attendants were told to put the baby off to the side, deal with the mother, and then clean the baby. We underwent a whole process providing things like plastic sheeting for mothers to lie on... providing stoves for hot water... providing training for traditional birth attendants... and even training traditional birth attendants to wash the baby, keep them warm, and fundamentally advise them to not have a baby in a barn! The key to all these interventions was to work with the mother in-law, they were the key decision maker in how these situations would unfold. We engaged these mother in-laws to be champions for their grandchildren, and changed a lot of these practices. That's just one example of how parents and even grandparents can be key in the story of children's development.
Q: To what extent do you think children require protection from, and in- the media?
[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Children need protection from the media where the media portray children and adolescents in a negative light. For example the media may say, "all adolescents are violent...", "all adolescents are drug addicts...", "all adolescents are not working and just being lazy..." and so on. These are not reflecting the reality of adolescence and of childhood in general. Also, there needs to be protection for children against the media whereby the media may publish their names (in context for example, of children who have been the victim of rape and crime). Children must also be protected from the 'media' in a broad sense. The use of new technology to attract children for sexual and other dishonest purposes is growing, and we must come up with mechanisms to protect them.
There are also many advantages from media-technology whereby new-media technologies can really empower children's education! This is the first time in history where children are the professors of technology versus their parents. I need a child to help me solve my computer problems!
The media can also promote a better image of children. They can communicate the rights of the child, and be agents for their empowerment. This may sound utopian, but this is what we aim for.
"Treating someone like a child is prima facie wrong, unless, of course, the person in question really is a child." wrote Tamar Schapiro, adding "...by ‘treating someone like a child’ I mean interacting with her on the basis of more paternalistic standards than those which apply to adult-adult relations. To treat someone like a child is, roughly, to treat her as if her choices are not quite her own to make." (What is a Child? 1999). Schapiro continues by raising the question, "…what features of a person’s condition can in principle justify us in treating a person this way?..."
The answer as we have seen, lies deeply rooted within our culture. Shapiro notes that, "...the idea that children have a special status, one which is different from that of adults, is evident in our everyday attitudes. Our basic concept of a child is that of a person who in some fundamental way is not yet developed, but who is in the process of developing. It is in virtue of children’s undeveloped condition that we feel we have special obligations to them, obligations which are of a more paternalistic nature than are our obligations to other adults. These special obligations to children include duties to protect, nurture, discipline, and educate them. They are paternalistic in nature because we feel bound to fulfill them regardless of whether the children in question consent to be protected, nurtured, disciplined, and educated. Indeed, we think of children as people who have to be raised, whether they like it or not. A related intuition is that the words and deeds of children have a different status or significance than the words and deeds of adults. This intuition manifests itself in two ways. First, we tend to think that, in general, children are not to have the same say in matters which affect them as adults do. The consent or dissent of a child does not have the same authority and moral significance as the consent or dissent of an adult. I am not suggesting here that we are completely indifferent to children’s opinions about what ought and ought not to be done to and for them. The point is merely that, in general, we do not feel bound by children's’ expressions of their wills in the same way that we feel bound by adults’ expression of theirs...."
It is clear that this same 'paternalistic' attitude often manifests itself not just in a sense of obligation, but in the perception of ownership. In the 'best interests of children', society inadvertently removes their agency and in doing so alienates their humanity.
In "The Sociology of Childhood", William Corsaro argues that, "Our children are our future. How often we hear this obvious but true proverb. Cultures that invest in their children; that shelter, nourish and challenge their young; and that hold high expectations for their future generations will survive and flourish. All children live their childhoods only once. We adults have had our childhoods; for some they were happy and enriching, and for others, unfortunately, sad and oppressive. We cannot have them back to live another way, nor can we live the lives of our children. All too often, individuals and societies try to justify their actions in terms of their effects on children’s futures as adults. This focus on the future, on what our children will become, can often blind us to how we treat and care for our children in the present. Enriching the lives of all our children will produce better adults and will enable our children to participate actively and fully in their own childhoods and contribute to the quality of our adult lives. Cultures that appreciate and celebrate their children for who they are as well as for who they will become are the cultures that will lead us most successfully as we proceed further into this new century."
Children are the physical form by which society re-incarnates itself, and avoids the certain mortality with which we are born. Without them, humanity will end... without them, the billions of souls who have fought, discovered, created and explored will have done so in waste. Each of the more than 400,000 children born every day has the innate capacity to be brilliant. There is no way for us to know which of these children will become the next great artists, world-leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and freedom fighters- but we can say with certainty that some of them will, and that collectively they will- in almost every respect- be more than we could every be.
"...Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you...." - Khalil Gibran
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