This year the world celebrates the 25th anniversary – a quarter of a century already! – of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UNCRC is said to be the most important child rights document that humanity ever created. The document that lists all the human rights of children, the most ratified treaty in the world, the one framework that makes adults see children as individuals with rights, rather than subjects of their whim and power. Important, hugh? We should celebrate.
Or maybe not that fast! Maybe we should first apologize before planning for any celebrations. In the last 25 years, just like in the 25 previous years or decades, children have been savagely, if not systematically, abused. The weaker they were, the more abuse they suffered from the adults around them.
Just think of these two situations in which children are systematically abused:
- 1. Children abused in so-called child protection institutions (‘orphanages’)
Probably the best known case of child institutional abuse comes from my own country, Romania. Exactly 25 years ago, the same year of the UNCRC adoption, the communist regime in Romania was falling in bloodshed, while 100.000 children or more (no accurate statistics were kept!) were confined in so-called ‘orphanages’ in which probably less than 2% of the children were actually orphans. Leaving in filthy conditions, shaved on their heads, frozen in cold buildings, standing naked in long queues to receive a weekly 15-seconds cold shower administered by professionals who wore yellow plastic gloves to touch their private parts, fed on boiled cabbage and little else, sedated when sick or disabled. International journalists called these degraded under-age human beings ‘Ceauşescu’s children’, as indeed Ceauşescu’s regime had encouraged families to abandon their children, especially if the children were disabled, poor, or roma.
But don’t think that this was 25 years ago! There are still thousands of children in the same conditions across the world (10 million according to some estimates) in both rich and poor countries. Some of the buildings in which children are institutionalized may now look better. Horrified by the plight of the Romanian children, many donors decided that something should be done, so many have started to renovate buildings, believing that this intervention would change children’s lives. And indeed it did. For the worse: seeing such nice buildings poor families had an additional reason to abandon their children, now more than ever convinced that their children would have a much better life in this nice building with a ‘USAID’ or ‘EC’ plaque on it. Useless the appeals of NGOs who showed, figures at hand, that caring for a child in an ‘orphanage’ is much more expensive than helping a family cope with temporary difficulties or creating alternative solutions such as foster care or small group homes.
A compelling study (the Bucharest Early Intervention Project) – so famous that it has its own book and wikipedia page – shows beyond doubt that institutionalized children have significantly lower levels of brain activity than other children, especially if they were institutionalized at a young age. To translate this in plane words: children who leave in institutions suffer such a lack of stimulation, coupled with such a level of abuse, that their brains decide to slow down! Put it differently: citizens like you and me pay a lot of money (orphanages are the most expensive interventions that humankind has invented to take care of children who may very well live without this intervention) to raise children who need to shut their brains so that they can concentrate on mere physical, animal-like type of survival. After a certain level of abuse intelligence is a burden: nature’s survival instincts are so strong that they rather produce a living idiot over a dead smart kid.
Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine – and so many other countries in our region still institutionalize a huge number of children! Romania itself institutionalizes more than 10.000 children in old-type institutions and 10.000 more in small group homes. To some of us working in the field it is so unbelievable that in front of such compelling evidence governments still put so many children in institutions. Why is this happening? Cruelty? Indifference? Corruption? Why isn’t such compelling evidence enough for changing bad policies?
- 2. Children abused in church-related contexts
Philomena. Did you read ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’? Or saw the movie? This is the story of an Irish woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is forced into a convent to repay her ‘sin’. Not any kind of convent, but a so-called Mgdalene Laundry, a place where young thousands of women like her were forced in unpaid labour (in this case doing the laundry, but it could have been cooking, scrubbing prison floors, assisting sick prisoners). After giving birth, Philomena was forced to work in the convent laundry for four years and one day she discovered that the nuns had given her son to an American couple for adoption, without warning her. Her son was simply taken away and not allowed to say goodbye. These cruel institutions where children were brought to life only to be taken away from their mothers existed in many countries and the last Irish Magdalene Laundry was close as late as… 1996. Locked away with no contacts with their families and communities, these women were treated as criminals and their children as disposable goods that could be exchanged for money.
The scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children is so well-known that I don’t even go there. Enough to say that the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child had to produce a specific report to ask the Vatican to remove all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers, in face of what had been perceived as an attempt of the Catholic church to protect the identity and impunity of the perpetrators. Not some 100 or 500 years ago, when the Pope was one of the most powerful men in Europe. But this year (2014), when we plan to celebrate the UNCRC.
Child abuse is not only happening in the Catholic Church. Other denominations have their fair share too. In some Eastern European countries, the Orthodox Church is reported to have recently attempted or even managed to establish orphanages. Some governments pride themselves over closing down orphanages, but reports say that many of the deinstitutionalized children simply went into streets or in… church-run institutions, where no public or government scrutiny is possible. It is obvious and natural that protecting children is at the heart of the social mission of the Church. And as a person who sees so much need around, I could not agree more. But let us protect the children in their own families first and where this is not possible, let us protect them in ways that do not add new layers of brain-numbing abuse. The Church is probably one of the best placed actors to help identifying good, loving families for children in need. Why not going that path instead?
Next in tears…
In 2001, the Irish Government admitted that the Magdalene Laundries were places of abuse and in 2013 Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued a full state apology to the victims, calling them the “nation’s shame”. The Prime Minister was said to choke back tears as he issued his apology to the thousands of women who were subjected to regimes of hard work and prayer in Catholic-run workhouses.
Earlier, in June 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools, on behalf of the Government of Canada. For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities in an attempt to assimilate them into the dominant culture, based on the assumption that the Aboriginal culture was inferior. Many wanted “to kill the Indian in the child” and the Canadian Prime Minister eventually had to apologize for those killings.
In April this year the Pope said that he feels ‘called to take responsibility for all the evil some priests — large in number, but not in proportion to the total — have committed and to ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done with the sexual abuse of children”.
In Norway, the state not only apologized, but also created a redress program for children who grew up in institutions. Now in their adulthood, these persons have created associations, sued the state and sought compensation. The Norwegian state has so far disbursed close to 200 million EUR in compensations.
The next in tears should be presidents or prime ministers of nations who still institutionalize children in Eastern Europe. As a Romanian, I would like to see Romanian President Traian Băsescu offering his apology to the children who suffered abuse in state-run institutions and for the country’s inability to put an end to institutionalization. He would be in such good company, as you can easily see from the above-mentioned examples. Also, as an EU citizen I would like to see the EU apologizing for not doing its best for keeping children high enough on the external agenda (especially the Enlargement and Neighborhood agenda): with Romania the EU demonstrated that with strong political will things can be radically changed – why can’t we continue on the right path?
If you agree with this post, please answer one question: who do you think in your country should make such an apology? I bet that if you think a bit about this, you may even come up with better UNCRC celebration ideas…