Through the Eyes of the Child

Issue section: 

Tony Staunton looks behind the rhetoric of 'children's rights'.

The headlines are becoming as familiar as they are phenomenal; 33,000 children die each day from preventable illnesses; at least 250 million children are in effective slavery to transnational corporations; the expansion of the global sex industry with a disproportionate increase in child abduction, with more than 1 million entering the sex trade each year, some as young as five years old.

Child poverty is on the increase. Some of the global statistics have been repeated in the wake of last year's horrific tsunami in South Asia, by none other than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As if to encourage the belief that all poverty is a naturally occurring disaster to be responded to with charity and western patronage, Blair launched his 'appeal for Africa' at the same moment that Brown championed debt relief. Children's faces are now at the forefront of the pictures and publicity for the latest initiative to Make Poverty History. As they should be.

While the experiences of children are not separate from those of adults, they are the most poignant. Children tend to be less physically powerful than adults. They certainly have a deal less experience by which to make informed decisions and choices, and arguably require more emotional support.

To be forced into war, suffer grinding and interminable hunger and thirst or be exploited ten to 18 hours each day for a pittance is a major experience of hardship accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that is only compounded by being a child.

Socialists have always fought to include children and young people as active participants in society. The rights of the child to education and welfare have been fought for by working class activists since before the great Chartist movement, but the debate has always begged the question, 'Education and welfare for what purpose?'

Today's proposals to help the poor of the world rise up to 'our' level smack of the Victorian paternalism that is now back in fashion alongside free market economics and the new imperialism. Any consideration of the experience of the majority of working class children in western societies should make progressive movements in the southern hemisphere think again. We must set our sights much higher and in a completely different direction.

Poverty is neither natural nor inevitable. The capitalist system perpetuates a class-based society that maintains a rich elite enjoying the wealth created by the exploited poor, not just north and south of the equator, but between rich and poor inside every country.

Here is the best example: of the top 21 economic countries the US has the highest proportion of poor children, with one in three unable to afford the basic necessities of life at any one time. One in four live below the poverty line with 22 percent of Americans under the age of 18 going hungry - 25 percent of all US children under 12 years of age.

The UK is similarly bad. Recent reductions of children in poverty from 4.5 million in 1997 to 3.6 million today are boasted of by Tony Blair but still represent almost one in four. For the fourth largest economy in the world, the statistics are a scandal. UK child poverty rates are currently the worst in Europe, double those in France and five times those in Nordic countries. A league table of child poverty in rich nations places Britain twentieth out of 23 for 'relative' poverty (households below 50 percent of average income).

The visible inequalities have led Gordon Brown to make a 'manifesto for children' in the coming general election: 'Instead of just freedom from want, our aim is the freedom of every adult to reach their potential.' Alongside Blair's 'Education, education, education' cry of the landslide 1997 election, it becomes obvious that 'children's rights' are once again being used as a vehicle for quite something else.

Gone is the development of an egalitarian comprehensive education system, never fully realised but for a time offering a broad-based curriculum accessible to all right up to degree level. With its replacement by the National Curriculum, schools have been taught to standardise and stream, segregate, target-set and regulate learning and behaviour to a level that should ensure the future owners of call centres a compliant workforce conversant with the digital age.

In nursery and primary schools free and exploratory, imaginative, creative, expressive play was firstly relegated to second place and finally lost completely to the regiment of the 'three Rs' of reading, writing and arithmetic. Standard Assessment Tests (Sats) imported from the US furthered the reduction of the classroom to the production line complete with target-set supervisors.

Non-compliance has meant exclusion from the learning process for children as young as five.

At the other end, tuition fees for university entrants achieved the re-privatisation of education as a privilege, not a right.

As part of the descent into sink schools and impoverished communities, our children today suffer 18 percent illiteracy rates, the highest teenage pregnancies in Europe, the highest suicide rate of under 26s (outside Finland); and spiralling use of alcohol and drugs, probably as a much needed escape. The figures of every social indicator place our children near the bottom of the western league.

The government response has been to clamp down on crime. Instead of spending money on youth centres, welfare and social services, they have cut state expenditure and massaged the figures. The so called new initiatives to build 'Sure Start' children's centres for a mixed economy of unsurpassed welfare provision are nothing of the sort.

The 'new money' for neighbourhood centres is the same old money taken away from local council-run children's services, now to be used primarily for childcare to ensure a flexible, subsidised (low wage) labour market unhindered by children's needs. The extended school day is there to help parents work longer, more flexible hours.

Social work, so hated by the establishment, has been constantly attacked by Tory and New Labour governments. Some valiant fights for welfare services by trade unionists have held up and slowed down the destruction of the British welfare state, with the 18-week strike by Liverpool social workers being a recent example, but the drive away from welfare principles continues to underpin government strategy and the global neoliberal project.

Blair's call for responsible citizenship is in fact a neoliberal downsizing of the role of the state in social welfare, making the individual responsible for their own conditions. With no free recreational facilities, our older kids without money have nowhere but the streets. Rather than build facilities, the government prefers zero tolerance and punishment. Most infamously, the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) offers local police curfew orders and a fast track towards criminalisation of those visible children who seek association, in addition to laws that already deal very harshly with young offenders.

Britain has the highest number of children in prisons in Europe, starting at ten years old. And the treatment of children of asylum seekers, with numbers subject to incarceration and separation from their parents increasing sixfold in the last year, is the worst example of violation of children's rights and the eradication of the welfare principle in Britain.

Little wonder that one in five children in Britain today have mental health problems. The latest draft Mental Health Bill has removed compulsory treatment orders for adults in the community. They were found to undermine human rights by forcing strong medications on ill people. Yet such treatment orders are still proposed for children.

Already the use of ritalin, a strong amphetamine-like drug, on children as young as five with challenging behaviour, has increased tenfold in the last decade despite no adequate medical definition of any illness. There are virtually no counselling or therapeutic services for families available. Instead doctors prescribe antidepressants in increasing numbers even though they are proven not to work on immature minds and metabolisms, a fact suppressed by the pharmaceutical companies cashing in on this growing market for child drugs.

Enforced powerlessness and the loss of any potential for self-determination are all but complete in UK childcare law. To crown it, the Sexual Offences Act 2004 made all sexual contact between children under 16 illegal and the subject of criminal law. At the same time, the British government retained a legal defence for parents to carry on hitting their babies and children, despite contrary recommendations from their own Committee on the Rights of the Child. The idea that it is OK for an adult to hit a child when it is illegal to do the same to another adult sums up the complete lack of rights of children in Britain.

Finally the new Children Act creates a national database on all children that can be shared between state departments without the knowledge, consent or access of the child or parent. The database will also be shared by licensed private firms, many of whom have already taken over state departments' information processing. Over the next 16 years the central database on every child will compile every personal detail, ensuring a seamless transition to the compulsory identity cards planned for all adults by 2020.

Compliance, correction and conformity to goals of individual competition, accumulation and consumption are the neoliberal mindset, enshrined now in law.

This year the government will recruit a children's commissioner. The government has already removed five references to children's rights from the job description, making it the only children's commissioner in Europe who is not required to promote and protect children's rights. The hypocrisy is complete.

It is left to us, the ordinary citizens of the world, to fight for children's rights. The anti-capitalist movement and the World Social Forum reflect the global fight for the end of capitalism and its replacement with a society based on peace and social justice. In the poor global South, the needs of children are stark, urgent and a true indication of the increasing horrors and injustices created by the free market. Often it is children themselves who are their own advocates.

But we must also expose the inequalities children experience in advanced western countries - the alienation and impoverished lives of hundreds of millions of the poor working class of London, Berlin and Washington.

Whatever campaign we are involved in, we must take the time to look at the issues and experiences through the eyes of the child. The ideas, views and wishes of children must be included, and children themselves encouraged to play their part to the full. The development of campaigns such as Asbo Concern, Rethinking Education and NO2ID can give a voice to children, just as anti-war protests have seen children spontaneously walk out of school and feel what it is to take control of their own lives.