Children: wordless among the articulate

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BY MASUD KHABEKI

“…Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you….” – Khalil Gibran Everyone of us has a fi rsthand experience of being a child. We understand that the immaturity of children is a biological fact of life but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture. It is these ‘facts of culture’ which may vary, and which can be said to make of childhood a social institution. It is in this sense, one can talk of the social institution of childhood and of its reconstruction and deconstruction. In this double sense, childhood is both constructed and reconstructed both for children and by children.

Before moving further on, we have to understand the true perception of children in our culture and what is the scale of their plight in the modern world. This type of comparison become very interesting in the context of under-developed countries like Pakistan. No doubt, a large number of children across the world are able to enjoy their childhood to the fullest, receive a good education, and have their health needs looked after. This is often seen and experienced in the advanced or rich countries. While, on the other hand, hundreds of millions of children are denied of their childhood, they are living in abject poverty and forced to live with confl ict and violence. This could be experienced in under-developed countries like Pakistan. This artifi – cial separation of children into their own group allows us to culturally justify the atrocities the adults are committing against them. In our world, over 600 million children live in poverty and over 11 million children die each year of largely preventable causes (around 21 each minute of every day). Our society uses over 250 million children as laborer’s (of which more than 125 million work in life-threatening environments).

Between 80 and 93% of all our children suff er some form of physical punishment in their homes. The fl aws in our culture mean that conservatively, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experience some form of forced sexual intercourse or violence each year-with over 1 million being physically sold into the sex trade. In many parts of the world, children are bought and sold like animals, sometimes at a lower price than animals. According to some estimates more than 200 million children who should be in education are not at school. These souring facts have shown us two diff erent constituencies of children. One group who enjoys their childhood and others who are deprived of their fundamental right to be children.

The critics make prejudice remarks on the second group without gauging their conditions. They have shown concerns by uttering questions like, if they are so poor why do they have so many children? Doing so they often ignore the fact that in a country without a strong state safety-net, the social safety net is provided by the extended family, by having more children is the way to have a strong extended family, such groups believe that if there are more people like us they can look after each other. There are numerous situations where we can witness that one member of an extended family completes his/her education and then expected to support the rest of the people in family. In such type of situation people have a tendency to suff er in silence or less prone to respond to the tragedies impacting them and their children. The lack of visible emotion does not mean that they do not care. We have witnessed that material wealth and comfort are more important than the basic sense of family and unconditional love. Furthermore, those children who are enslaved and victims of violence including sexual abuse, belong to those sections of society that don’t have a strong political voice or who are taken for granted by politicians and elites.

Majority of those children therefore belong to marginalized poor neighborhoods and are excluded sections of our society. It is happening because the rights of children are not recognized both at family and political levels. Despite knowing the fact that children are the key driver for human progress and development. Traditionally, children are treated badly because they are poor, though some believe that children should be given charity. The process of charity itself is economic, physical and sexual exploitation of poor children. We are still adamant to consider these children as equal human beings or unable to understand that these poor children are born with certain inalienable rights. We have to improve and strengthen our notion of children’s rights within our culture and societies and have pursue each and every known and practiced strategy to improve the plight of our children.

We must work on strategies to improve the legal issues often hampering the child development programs. We have to introduce mandatory laws that guarantees the rights of child. For instance, we have to focus on the improvement of children’s nutrition. This eff ort could bring about positive changes in productivity, economic development and poverty reduction that contribute to society as a whole. It is known fact that good nutrition enhances health, cognitive development and school performance among children. Action needs to be taken early on, however, as poor nutrition in the fi rst 1,000 days of a child’s life can lead to stunted growth in children, which is irreversible and can cause life-long consequences associated with impaired cognitive ability and reduced school performance. Nearly half of all deaths in children under fi ve are attributable to undernutrition. Being undernourished puts children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections and contributes to delayed recovery.

In addition, the link between undernutrition and infection can create a potentially lethal cycle of worsening illness and deteriorating nutritional status. Again, primary education provides the foundation for children progress and better future opportunities. Education has been linked to better health and well-being outcomes for children. Children must have access to primary education, and it must be regarded as their fundamental right. Even though, disparities are witnessed in learning outcomes between rich and poor children. Data reveal signifi cant gaps in children’s learning performance between the richest households and the poorest.

Children from the richest households are far more likely to achieve minimum learning standards in reading than those from the poorest households. Furthermore, providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty and provide an opportunity for the progress of society. The educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will, they are less likely to die in childbirth, more likely to have healthy babies and more likely to send their children to school. When all children have access to a quality education it creates opportunities that infl uence generations to come. The early childhood, which spans the period up to 8 years of age, is critical for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. During these years, a child’s developing brain is responsive to change as billions of integrated neural circuits are formed through the interaction of genetics, environment and experience. Optimal brain development requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients and social and responsive interaction with attentive caregivers.

The adult support for development and learning of children is of utmost importance. Although the world has made historic gains over the past three decades in improving children’s lives, urgent action is required if the poorest children are to feel the impact. The writer is on advisory board of an Islamabad based think tank