Leading children into light

IT would not be conscionable to walk through the valley of suffering of many of the world's children without intending to lead as many children as possible out of that valley. That is what moral commitment is all about. Today the five-part Monitor series, ``Children in Darkness,'' ends. It was a tough subject for this newspaper to research, write, and illustrate: millions of children, particularly in developing countries, exploited as factory and farm workers, as prostitutes, and as dispensable soldiers in wars. The looks in the photos on the faces of children pressed into servitude, immorality, and soldiering are hard to bear.

But the purpose of the effort is the follow-through. What can be done now?

Global commitment. Just as the world economy, and the earth's ecology, are increasingly seen as of one piece, so must the treatment of children be seen as having to conform to universal standards.

International agencies and corporations. Such universal standards may in part soon be set at the United Nations, by the Convention for the Rights of the Child. The convention's work, in setting legal rights for children against exploitation, deserves the full support of every UN delegation. UN standards that already exist - such as forbidding employment of children under 14 - are not endorsed by many UN members, including the United States. Universal standards for compulsory school attendance - the reverse side of child labor - should likewise be set.

The World Bank and other major lending institutions should review and consider child labor practices, much as they do other debtor economic practices, when considering loans or debt extensions to developing countries, and insist on pertinent reforms.

International corporations should consider the treatment of child workers and other practices involving children in their decisions to deal with certain countries, much as the Sullivan Principles were invoked to combat mistreatment by race.

Grass-roots programs. Relief for the exploited children cannot be expected to trickle down from international action alone. Indeed, much of the most effective action for the child is occurring at the local level - programs for street children in Guatemala City. Some programs, like CHILDHOPE in Guatemala, are becoming international by prompting sister programs elsewhere.

Congressional action. The United States Congress already has before it trade legislation that would link minimum-age violations and other unfair labor practices to a foreign country's access to the US market. An amendment proposed by Rep. Don Pease (D), of Ohio deserves support. Congress should require child-labor practices of countries to be monitored as well as human rights.

Individual action. Consumers can make choices, in economic areas, about whether to buy rugs or other specific products produced by child labor. Where products are sent through markets like Hong Kong, it can be hard to check on how they were produced. But market pressures can have an impact, as they have had with the import of endangered-species products.

Destitution breeds the exploitation of children. Other economic issues must be considered: the effect on children of developing countries' debt burdens; the need to get investment funds to the local level, where entrepreneurial reforms can often most quickly take effect; the importance of education to a more productive work force that will not need to exploit children.

Economic reform, however, does not encompass all that is amiss in the sexual exploitation of children, or the wasting of youth in war. Here the fundamental concept of the purity and dignity of life, the purpose of the family and society, must be reexamined. This is a moral battle that cries out for more recruits. Our individual thoughts touch directly on universal conditions. Our expectations, as citizens, for how our governments and public organizations treat the world's children are a barometer of our moral coherence and worth.

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