Let the world's children be children

FAR too many children today face the prospect of a uniquely hopeless world - one in which most of them will remain illiterate, malnourished, and poor in spite of resources being available to make it otherwise. Unfortunately, the most fundamental rights of thousands of children are being denied in countries all around the world. The consequences of this are dire: Children who have never been given hope cannot pass on any hope, and children who have never known caring and commitment cannot pass on caring and commitment. Children pass on what they themselves know.

When we read, for example, that perhaps one-third of Brazil's children are growing up on the streets, then we all have reason to be afraid of the future. When we see young children in El Salvador and Nicaragua armed with guns, children who cannot even read or write, we have even more reason to fear the future. A 1988 report from a Quaker group in London to the UN estimated that the world's armies include 200,000 children either brutally conscripted or urged by their parents to join in order to get food, and shelter.

But even worse things are happening to children than being conscripted involuntarily, if worse there can be. In South Africa, hundreds of children have in recent years been held in illegal detention. South African doctors have said 15,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of children detained by South African police between September 1984 and the end of 1986. In the same period, approximately 25,000 children were arrested on charges arising out of political protest and unrest. But things are not much different elsewhere in Africa. In Uganda, for example, some children feel afraid to walk to school because of the armed ``children'' in the Ugandan Army.

Children have been the victims of militarization and police brutality in other parts of the world as well. Detention and torture in jail, bombings, arson, and rape have all had their effect on Filipino children. Doctors and psychologists dealing with traumatized children - including the offspring of political prisoners who were either born or raised in jails in the Philippines - have commented on the low resistance these children have to diseases. They have also commented on their lethargy, their ready feelings of defeat, their irregular sleep patterns and frequent nightmares. These children often have trouble relating to others, according to Beth Marcelino, who formed the Children's Rehabilitation Centre in Quezon City.

This year, Amnesty International launched a campaign on behalf of the many children who have been victims of political repression. ``Innocence and vulnerability are no protection against abuses of power by the state,'' the worldwide human rights organization said in its news release for this campaign.

Supporters of Amnesty International found themselves writing letters on behalf of children around the world: a seven-year-old in Addis Ababa's Central Prison; four Anatolian village boys given electric shocks by Turkish security forces; an eight-year-old in Ecuador who was placed over a roll of barbed wire and beaten by police; a schoolboy in Afghanistan who was interrogated by police and subsequently ``disappeared''; 300 children arrested, tortured, and imprisoned in Iraq; a 14-year-old Chilean boy whose crime it was to be the stepson of a political prisoner; a 12-year-old sentenced to death in Pakistan for robbery; a 13-year-old boy who disappeared in Sri Lanka. With each of these cases, Amnesty knows that only the tip of the iceberg is being revealed. Atrocities against children have become commonplace.

And where there are not actual atrocities against children, atmospheres of violence are more the norm than the exception. In 1982, Time Magazine published a report on ``The Children of War.'' Children from five war zones were interviewed: Northern Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Thailand with its survivors from Cambodia, and Hong Kong with its Vietnamese boat people. The stories told by those children were stories of sadness and horror - and stories of indomitable endurance. The long-range effect of growing up in a world of chaos and fragility, of fatigue clothing and bomb blasts, of bigotry, hatred, and violence still has to be estimated.

With such a portrayal of the state of the world's children, one wonders what hope there is for the future. And one thinks of a wish Bertrand Russell once expressed: that if all children could have security from want, security of affection, and security of education, the world could be miraculously transformed. But simple as such a wish is, it seems unattainable.

The poet Francis Thompson once asked what it meant to a be a child. Surely it means to share a sense of wonder, to have curiosity, to want to love and be loved, to be open and adaptable, and to be honest. But the world today is not a safe, warm, and cozy place that provides an opportunity for most children to know what being a child means. Rather, greed, fear, and selfishness have brought about situations where children, surrounded by sadness and killing, are propelled into adulthood.

How long can the bandages applied by the many nongovernment organizations and groups like Amnesty International hold out? Where and how do we begin to repair a world where so many children suffer deprivations and atrocities?

A lot of hard thinking has to be done, and a lot of loving kindness has to be restored, to make better the state of the world's children. It has to be done soon.

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