Law to Protect Children Riles Many Parents in Guatemala

Who could object to a law seeking to protect Guatemala's children from poverty and abuse?

Quite a few people, it turns out. Churches, libertarian lawyers, and conservative parents are outraged by a measure they say would sabotage religion, disrupt the family, and trap parents in an Orwellian police state.

Eighteen months after it sailed unanimously through Congress, and just days before it takes effect on March 27, Guatemala's new Children's and Juvenile Code is the focus of a heated debate. Conservative activists are seeking its repeal, while children's rights advocates say the law offers critical protections for the 5.5 million Guatemalans under 18.

Last week hundreds of street children and grade-schoolers marched on government offices in support of the measure. An alliance representing most of Guatemala's 3.5 million evangelical Christians says it will deliver 200,000 signatures calling for repeal. A conservative party has said it wants the law shelved for a year.

Among the law's key provisions are articles that outlaw exploitative conditions for the estimated 2 million Guatemalan children who work and urge tighter controls on the international adoption business. The law's supporters have tarred opponents with charges that they are fronting for, or being manipulated by, child traffickers.

But conservative groups say the law will invest youths with more freedom than they can handle, while preventing parents and teachers from doling out discipline and imparting moral and religious values.

The challenge has created new animosities while highlighting a chasm of distrust still dividing Guatemalans after the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

"We are still an uncultured society in democratic terms," says Nineth Montenegro, the leftist legislator who championed the measure. "We don't know how to listen to one another and we see anyone with a different point of view as a threat to ourselves and to our family."

The dispute is the latest test for Guatemala's reform-minded leaders as they try to modernize the conservative country's political and social institutions.

Both sides plan to meet today to discuss the measure. Officials from the ruling party have yet to say what they'll do. Pressure on them to amend the law increased Monday when Roman Catholic bishops said it should be "substantially revised" on the grounds that it lets the government broadly interfere in family matters.

Backers of the law say they see no valid reason for the virulent opposition. They say the measure merely puts into law the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument Guatemala ratified in 1990.

One provision would grant children the right to choose their own religion. "Adolescents will become even more rebellious than they are," says Ana Maria de Klein, leader of an upper-class mothers' group. "Now a child can say, 'I don't want to go to church any more,' and the parents can't do anything about it." Evangelical school administrator Armando Encarnacion Olcot says students might argue they can disobey regulations against smoking or drinking.

"Our Christian principles will go down the tubes," he says.

Fernando Montalvo, a lawyer with the Commission for the Convention on the Rights of the Child says, "It's all been a misunderstanding." He says the intention of the religion provision is to protect the rights of children, like anyone else, to practice religion. But, he adds, that article is one of several that supporters are willing to modify so the code can go into effect.

The most contentious provision would set up national, state, and local boards with powers to investigate complaints from children and bring court action against parents and adults suspected of violating their rights.

Opponents say every time parents try to lay down the law - for breaking curfew, for example - their child will haul them in front of the review board.

These concerns are overblown, say supporters. "Nobody's going to turn around in Guatemala and throw a whole bunch of people in jail just because they could be doing a better job as parents," says Jim Mayrides of UNICEF, which backed the measure.

Detractors have focused on UNICEF's support of the law, saying it is a foreign imposition on Guatemala. "It wasn't written by Guatemalans. It's a code for societies that have a different character.... They are living in another reality," says Elry Orozco, a spokesman for the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala. Some observers say the controversy may teach Guatemala's leaders a valuable lesson in democracy.

According to Gustavo Meono, general director of the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation, a humanitarian group, the controversy has shown the need for greater dialogue between the government and opposition groups.

But, he says, that dialogue must extend not only to the leftist groups whose exclusion from politics led to war, but also conservatives who feel threatened by the terms of the peace. This was not done in the case of the children's law, says Mr. Meono. "They left out an entire part of the society."

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