What the future demands

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - November 24, 2020 - 12:00am

“In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Children have always been one of the most unheard and unseen sectors of society. For much of history, they were non-entities, without any say in what their guardians decided for them. Only in the fairly recent past have there been movements to treat them as deserving of special consideration and protection. The first agreement to seek to bind State parties to take specific action was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. Last Nov. 20 was World Children’s Day and also marked the 31st anniversary of the adoption of the CRC, and it remains a high-water mark in the history of children’s rights. To this day it is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, laying out, amongst other matters, four principles that changed the way children’s rights are discussed, including the concept of the best interests of the child. The CRC does not just focus on the right of children to be protected but also their rights to participate, and recognized the evolving capacities that make childhood a special period in the life of a human being.

Yet for all the progress that the CRC has enabled, many of the world’s children continue to suffer from cruelty, neglect, or exploitation. In 2019, more than one in five – 144 million children under 5 –were stunted (low height-for-age) and 47 million suffered from wasting (low weight-for-height). In the United States (which has not signed the CRC), migrant children continue to be separated from their families. A study projected that only 61 percent of young adults would be able to finish secondary education – and this was before COVID-19, which will itself inflict greater harm on children’s capacity for schooling as well as their mental health. Hanging over all this is the specter of climate change, for which the nations of the world are extremely underprepared.

The continued existence of these evils does not invalidate the importance of the CRC. It is important because it puts into words that are binding under international law, standards that the nations of the world are obligated to strive for, and because it sets out the special nature of childhood and of children’s rights. Governments cannot simply fold in the needs of children with the needs of people in general. While general laws for the common good will likely benefit children as well, they also have special needs that must be taken into account.

What makes childhood so special? It is a time of growth and discovery, of great vulnerability and rapid change. It is both a social construct and a fact of biology. The former is why what it means to be a child can change from culture to culture, and the latter points to the real differences between a young human being and a fully developed adult. Unlike other mammals, humans do most of their development outside the womb – where some monkeys are born with their brains already 70 percent developed, humans are born with their brains only around 25 percent of their adult size. This is one reason why human babies are so helpless – but it also allows our mental development to be influenced by a vastly wider world than that of the womb. This and our long childhood may contribute to our higher intelligence and our ability to create complex cultures and societies. Childhood is the key to achieving the fullness of human potential, allowing us to be molded by our environment as our capacities develop – an environment that could just as easily stunt our growth as promote it. Children are vulnerable in body and mind, and both the people they become, and the future world that they create, depends on giving them a positive environment in which to grow.

So much of the work of nations is aimed towards the future. Building infrastructure, drafting prospective and progressive laws, investing in long-term development plans. But none of that will matter if we do not place the needs of children front and center.

Many adults take childhood for granted. They feel as if by passing through it they have graduated from it, that they understand it. But in the words of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “We know nothing of childhood: and with our mistaken notions the further we advance the further we go astray. The wisest writers devote themselves to what a man ought to know, without asking what a child is capable of learning. They are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man.”

Children are not only valuable for who they might become. They are valuable for who they are now, as human beings, as children. There are things they can do now that they cannot do later, and dangers they are more vulnerable to now than as adults. And while many of these dangers are old evils, there are some with more modern faces: online sexual exploitation, information manipulation and pandemics like COVID-19. And these dangers, old and new, must be met with concrete action that considers the special needs and evolving capacities of children. After all, our future is at stake.

The future isn’t a far away fantasy filled with interstellar travel or giant robots. The future is the joy in my daughter’s face when she tells me what she’s going to be when she grows up. The future is a boy who isn’t getting enough to eat but works to provide for his siblings. The future is an infant crying as he receives his first vaccination.

The future is now – it is embodied in our children, with present needs, and with a claim to a better world than the one they are growing up in. For those of us who hold the reins of the present – adults and states alike – a better tomorrow makes concrete demands on us today.

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