February 11, 2005
Putting Stolen Childhoods in Context
The release of the Galen Films documentary Stolen Childhoods comes at a time when the world community is neglecting its commitments to children on a wide range of concerns.
A December 9, 2004 report from the United Nations Children's Fund says that more than 1 billion children - half of all the children in the world - are denied a healthy and protected upbringing. Many millions, the UNICEF report says, suffer from one or more kinds of extreme deprivation - inadequate shelter, poor sanitation, insufficient health care, little or no education, a lack of food.
This is the current reality, despite a landmark 1989 human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which world leaders pledged to improve the lives of children everywhere.
Hunger and malnutrition kill more than 5 million children a year, says a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The spread of HIV/AIDS across the globe has created a generation of orphans - 15 million, by one estimate - who lack a protective layer of adult support. And worldwide, 140 million children, the majority of them girls, have never been to school.
A recent report from Oxfam, the international relief agency, says that in the decade ahead millions more will go without education or die needlessly unless the rich nations of the world increase aid, and cancel poor countries' debt. Aid budgets of the wealthy countries are now half what they were in 1960, Oxfam says. Meanwhile, poor countries are struggling to make $100 million a day in debt repayments.
Stolen Childhoods documents how some of these policies play out. For 246 million children, life is nothing but work. Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, says in the film, "Misusing children as workers is a form of murder. It's a slow death - a sentence of death that you are giving to the child."
As the film suggests, there is a difference between promises made over the years by international organizations and actual performance. One hundred thirty-five nations have signed International Labour Organization Convention 138, setting minimum age standards for employment. One hundred fifty nations have signed Convention 182, banning the worst forms of child labor. However, as the film documents, the abuses continue.
Yet it is not hopeless. Stolen Childhoods finds some progress made by individuals and programs in tackling child labor issues. Brazil has succeeded in cutting its rate of child labor in half with a range of programs including a highly effective educational subsidy for poor families.
Why is improving the state of children around the world an urgent matter? In addition to the obvious humanitarian reasons, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) offers a practical one. "This is the breeding ground for Osama Bin Laden's army and for future terrorists," he says. "If we want a secure future for America and the world, it's not going to be enough to go bomb Saddam Hussein, or to get him out of power. If we don't get these kids into school and get them a decent education, we're going to have more terrorism in the future."
In Stolen Childhoods, Cristovam Buarque, a member of the Brazilian senate and former minister of education, suggests a "Marshall Plan for Children," patterned after the economic recovery program undertaken in the wake of World War II. "It would be so easy to have a social Marshall Plan, investing not in the economy, but investing in social areas for the children of the world," he says. "This would be easy. The money exists. All that is needed is for the world to want to do it."