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Introduction: Questioning How We Think About Children

It would be easy to compile a special issue on children by cataloguing a long list of their sufferings, or by documenting interesting and exotic features of children's lives in different cultural contexts. While this could be informative, it would do little to invigorate thinking about children, much less our relationships with them.

In this issue we have attempted a more ambitious task. We have asked the authors to reflect on a number of thorny child issues that resist easy characterization and simple answers, and to do so in a manner that will stimulate readers to (re)examine dominant notions of childhood and child wellbeing. Our purpose has not been to provide a balanced view of childhood or to give equal consideration to all sides. Rather, the authors challenge basic assumptions and highlight aspects that have been masked by platitudes or tend to pass without critical examination, often to the detriment of children.

Much of the recent critical attention to children and their rights can be attributed to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC, adopted by the UN in 1989, is the most widely ratified international treaty in history. All states, except Somalia and the USA, are currently party to the treaty. The CRC accords, without discrimination, all persons aged 0 to 18 social, economic and cultural, as well as civil and political rights. It regards children as subjects of rights, as full persons deserving of respect and dignity, not as adults in the making.

Even so, as Judith Ennew informs us, the history of child rights is written by adults -- it tells us more about "adult heroes" and virtually nothing about children's own efforts. If we were to dig behind linear lists of international conferences and luminaries, we might find a richer story that includes children as political actors. It might lead us to confront the significance of 12 year-olds leading the Christian Crusades in 1212 or the more recent involvement of children in the intifada and struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Ennew's article reminds us of the value of approaching apparently uncontroversial constructs with a good deal of skepticism, and of asking the basic question: Who tells the story and for whose benefit?

When it comes to children, especially other children, images disturb us most powerfully. Pictures of starving children have often spurred deliveries of food aid, but comparatively little action is taken, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has noted, to alleviate the widespread and ultimately more devastating suffering caused by chronic impoverishment. This disparity suggests that our responses to children's wellbeing may often have more to do with our threshold of comfort than with the objective rights or subjective experience of children.

In recent years, rich nations and elites in poor countries have been intermittently concerned by images of street children, child laborers and child soldiers. The many ways in which these groups of children face enormous hardships -- routine police brutality, long hours and dangerous working conditions, children killing and being killed -- are obvious. These realities rightly shock us. Many children and their communities have borne a tremendous toll. These circumstances deserve serious and thoughtful attention, however, not blithe condemnation or uncritical knee-jerk reactions showing little understanding of the root causes and complex influences on children's issues.

Rachel Baker examines the situation of street children in Nepal and demonstrates that while they are perceived as lacking "proper care and education," the reality is often more complex. Many of these children, far from being "abandoned," maintain significant ties with their families and other trusted adults in the city. Their experiences and connections on the streets provide many with valuable incomes, self-esteem and competencies that are often more valued than the drudgery of schooling.

Images of working children have evoked calls for "banning" or "abolishing" child labor, and for "boycotts" of products made with child labor. A host of legal measures have been adopted to ensure that children do not work and are instead in school. Unfortunately, many of these steps have failed to achieve intended outcomes and at times even hurt the very children they were meant to help. Reasons are manifold. The legal infrastructure and enforcement capacity is extremely weak in many countries. Schools are often inaccessible, too expensive, violent, boring and irrelevant. Many children have no choice but to earn incomes for themselves and their families. Bans and sanctions against child labor tend to drive it underground (where it is hidden and difficult to monitor) or to force children into worse alternatives (such as prostitution).

Nandana Reddy calls for policy making on child labor to begin by listening to children. She documents the ways in which involving children can bring a more informed, nuanced and practical perspective to difficult problems. Her work demonstrates that, given the space, children are capable of organizing, reflecting on their circumstances and options, and working with adults to advocate on their own behalf. The meeting of working children at Kundapur, whose final declaration is reproduced in this issue, is a good example of one result. In an ideal world free of poverty and other constraints, perhaps no child will chose to engage in work that could cause harm. But both then and in the meantime, the best interests of the child are more likely to be arrived at by actively engaging with working children and their organizations.

Child soldiers are perhaps the most potent symbols of a world order gone awry. As Krijn Peters explains, finding a solution to this intractable problem requires a deep understanding of the root motivations underlying the phenomenon. Using accounts of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, he shows how young people are squeezed in an extractive political economy where those in power care nothing about children and most adults treat children as "second class civilians," not with dignity. This "double humiliation" often drives young people to become combatants, where, despite the horrors of war, they can often find a role, a sense of belonging and worth, respect and power. Policy making that only characterizes child soldiers as victims of unscrupulous warlords misses the critical picture, Peters argues, and will fail to provide young people with the economic alternatives and community respect vital to ending the conflict.

Gillian Mann and Andrea Ledward examine the situation of "separated" children in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, and question whether "reunification" with parents or relatives is always in children's best interests. They discuss ways in which some children face the severest abuse in their own families, and note how "parents" often discriminate against foster children and exploit them for their labor. Mann and Ledward challenge the use of the term "unaccompanied" as narrowly referential to parents alone, and explain the ways in which many such children are in fact accompanied by siblings and have a rich set of relationships with other adults. Given this understanding of children's situations, different types of arrangements are needed for different children. In some cases, it makes more sense to support children to strengthen their existing networks rather than sending them "home."

In her article on children and AIDS in Zimbabwe, Ledward suggests that the key to the problem lies in challenging policy contradictions and understanding the structure of children's vulnerability to HIV. Sexual debut in Zimbabwe is early, between 7-15 years, and the first encounter is often abusive. Many girls in her study report being caught between the need to earn money for the family and sex being the only available means of doing so. Nevertheless, programs in Zimbabwe do not provide children with information and services about sex, because sex is considered an "adult" activity. Moreover, Ledward notes, children who are disempowered in everyday life are unlikely to be able to negotiate safety in sexual encounters. In this context, mere exhortations to postpone sex or do it safely will have a negligible effect. Policies need to engage with children in meaningful dialogue and recognize the real constraints in their lives.

Steven Klees and Irene Rizzini provide a valuable account of child policies over the last SO years in Brazil. They outline how a succession of attempts to "help" children went so wrong that children's institutions were referred to as "branches of hell" where children experienced "frequent instances of beating and torture." Initial policies also criminalized child behavior the State deemed "irregular," leading to wholesale arrests and abuse of children. The tide began to turn only when children and their allies began to speak out and make the case that the conditions, and not the children, were irregular. Provided with the opportunity, street children and others organized to advocate for their concerns, including, especially, an end to violence. In 1988 this process led to Brazil's incorporation of child rights into its constitution.

All the authors emphasize the critical value of listening to children and of using what is learned to shape better policy. As Jo Boyden cautions, however, obtaining information from children is not a "neutral" exercise. Well-intended research, particularly in highly stressed communities, can sensationalize and stereotype, fall into the wrong hands, and instigate difficult tensions among family members. For this reason, Boyden argues, it is crucial to develop clear and transparent ethical standards for research. These include meaningful informed consent, setting clear expectations, deep accountability, protecting children from harm, and ensuring respect for the feelings and testimonies of the research subjects. These standards must be open to close scrutiny and monitoring. Much recent research, even when conducted by child rights advocates, fails to pay attention to these standards and accord children the basic sense of respect they imply.

Linda Dale presents an account of a project that has attempted to approach child participation from an ethical perspective. The Mapping our World project's intention is to "provide a forum where children can speak and adults listen." The project workshops are tailored to the children's situations, and children have the opportunity to discuss and change the activities they perform to suit their interests. The selected images reproduced in this final article provide a poignant depiction of how young people in Uganda understand conflict in their lives. Their artwork and stories can be an important start to a serious dialogue with adults on how to safeguard the rights of children in times of conflict.

In conclusion, I would like to highlight two common themes. First, policies and programs designed by adults for children often go wrong, however well-intentioned. They tend to miss out key information and fail to fathom the critical priorities, constraints, influences, pathways and connections in children's lives. By leaving children out, these policies also weaken the structure of their accountability and forgo the opportunity to contribute to children's sense of belonging and influencing the world.

Second, children are capable. They are increasingly competent in a wide set of issues, and can often share valuable information about their circumstances. Many children are able to reflect, analyze and weigh options and consequences. Many can organize, build powerful and thoughtful alliances with adults, and advocate for themselves. In some of the most difficult circumstances, children throughout the world have devised careful and creative means to take care of themselves, their friends and their families.

Recognizing that children are capable and need to be listened to lies at the heart of the movement for child rights. But doing this is not easy, for most of our current notions of childhood allow little meaningful space for children's voices and participation, and even less assurance that they be treated with respect and dignity. The cost of seeing children as innocent, incapable creatures who should play and prepare for real life later on may be greater than we have considered. Child rights, then, is less about fulfilling a list of obligations and more about adults viewing and interacting with children in profoundly new ways, varying according to context. Coming to a better understanding of childhood and child rights will require plumbing the depths of present cultures and resisting a romantic, globalized view of childhood. It will require invention and a transformation of present arrangements. As the articles make clear, it is doable, at least in small steps. A good starting point seems to be questioning our notions of children's proper role and place and beginning to imagine other possibilities.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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