Children through the ages

Published by reposted only Date posted on November 21, 2014

Yesterday (November 20) marked the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international human rights treaty that discusses children’s rights in four areas: the right to survival, the right to develop to the fullest, the right to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation, and the right to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

It’s a long document, not always easy to read and digest, but it is important, and needs to be better disseminated. There are simplified versions used in schools, but I worry that it is the adults who need to be reached with explanations of the rights.

I won’t go into a discussion of individual rights but will instead reflect on how the CRC is revolutionary in terms of human history.

Instinctive love

In the Philippines, there are archaeological sites that yielded graves of infants where the corpses were accompanied by pottery and body ornaments, much like those of adults. Such sites suggest that very young children were valued, and their loss was probably a source of great grief.

Does that mean parental love is instinctive? I would be more careful there.

There is tremendous variation, across cultures, in the way children are raised. The anthropologist Nancy Schepher-Hughes wrote a book years ago, “Death Without Weeping,” about how Brazilian slum mothers would distance themselves from their children until the latter reached the age of one.

The distancing, Schepher-Hughes suggests, was because of the high infant death rates. Mothers distanced themselves from their children almost as a defense mechanism, in case the child died early. Once the child turned one, there was a higher chance that he or she would survive, and mothers could now “invest” more affection.

This did not mean mothers neglected their children. But there was emotional distancing, which you find in other cultures as well, for different reasons. There are societies where parents, especially fathers, keep emotional distance from their children in the hope that this will make them strong. There are many societies, including our own, where upper-class parents leave much of the child-rearing to household helpers. Others might even send children off to boarding schools abroad, to make them more independent.

Think, too, of the many household helpers, including yayas (nannies) who leave their children behind in the provinces, to be cared for by grandparents. I have talked with helpers who leave behind babies not even a year old, and they smile in quiet resignation. Do they have choices?

In the last 30 years or so, we’ve had Filipinos going to work overseas, again many leaving behind very young children. I once met a mother who was scheduled to leave to work overseas but got pregnant. After delivering her child she came visiting, bringing the infant, who was so clearly unhealthy. The mother, I could tell, was distancing herself from the baby as she prepared to leave.

Skipping adolescence

Childhood also tended to be brief in the past, and even today in impoverished areas. The idea of adolescence is a recent “invention,” dating back only to the 20th century.

Before then, one moved from childhood straight into adulthood. Girls would be married off sometimes even before the first menstruation. Boys were married off, too, or sent to fight in wars. Benedict IX became pope at the age of 20, with some accounts saying maybe at an even earlier age of 11 or 12.

And, of course, in all societies there are child workers, sent out to sea to fish, or to farms, and even to work in factories. Today child labor remains a problem in the Philippines, often in the most hazardous of circumstances, including selling flowers in the concrete jungles of Manila and other urban areas.

Underlying child labor is the idea of parents that children are brought into the world to help support the family, and to repay their parents. Even the most modern of Filipino families still look at children as old-age insurance: Someday, the children are told, you will have to support your parents.

Modern technology has created a more insidious type of child labor: webcam-based child sex tourism, where children in poor countries perform live sex shows that are broadcast through the Internet and webcams, for paying clients from richer countries. The Philippines is the focus of international investigations of this variation of child trafficking, with “studios” uncovered even in remote barangays, with parents pimping their own children.

The CRC did not come out of nowhere. As early as 1923, Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb drafted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, referring to the child’s material and spiritual development. There were such provisions as “the child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.”

These rights evolved into different forms until the CRC 25 years ago. While countries signed up quickly for the CRC, it is interesting that one country still has not ratified the convention. That country is the United States, where conservatives oppose the CRC because it prohibits the death penalty and life imprisonment for minors (defined as below the age of 18, unless a country has a lower age of consent). Other conservative Americans oppose the CRC as an intrusion into the way parents might want to raise their children.

Evolving definitions

We have seen, too, that even if nearly all countries have signed the CRC, implementation has been another matter. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, nearly died after being shot by Taliban radicals for defying their attempts to keep girls from going to school (she spoke out in a BBC documentary about the rights of girls to an education). She was 15 when she was shot.

The definitions of the rights of children will continue to evolve. We have seen three optional protocols coming after CRC: one prohibiting child soldiers, another on the need to protect children from being used in porn, and a third promoting “a communication procedure,” or how a child, or child advocates, can bring up cases of violations.

That last protocol is an example of the continuing challenges to children’s rights. Many Filipino parents are horrified to hear that children in some western countries (for example, Canada) can report their parents to authorities if physical punishment has been used on them. I remember the Inquirer featuring a debate on corporal punishment of children, with many readers saying they had been punished severely. I never forget one account where a man said that as a child, he was once put into a sack, which was then suspended from the ceiling—and he thought that was all right.

Malala Yousafzai’s award, at the age of 17, makes her the youngest Nobel Laureate… and ushers in an era where children are definitely not just to be seen, but also to be heard. –Michael L. Tan, @inquirerdotnet

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