Every five minutes a child somewhere dies a violent death. Speaker after speaker cited this and other horrifying figures relentlessly during a three day event organized by the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) in Panama City last week. The sobering realities of violence take many forms: child marriage, child soldiers, bullying, abuse, gang pressures, female genital cutting (FGM/C), sexual exploitation and trafficking, and on and on. Even listening to the litany is painful.
Over 500 people, from many religious traditions, and all world regions, participated in the forum, alongside leaders of the many organizations active in this area, including UNICEF, World Vision, the World Bank, and Plan International. It was organized by Arigatou International, a Japanese philanthropy inspired by Myochikai, a Buddhist community, and Arigatou’s leader and founder Rev. Takeyasu Miyamoto.
The meeting included and featured 64 enthusiastic young people from 20 countries, some of them bearing powerful witness to violence they had experienced (for example abduction and sex slavery). GNRC’s philosophy is that children should be part of any discussion about them, and these children were to be seen AND heard.
The many speakers all expressed pain and horror at the reality of violence against children. They see it occupying far too a low a place on the ladder of global agendas: it belongs right at the top. They argued that religious voices can and should offer a moral argument for more vigorous action to confront the many forces of evil that are at work. They offer spiritual guidance and comfort to children and their families and can bring both direct knowledge and prophecy. The multitude of religiously led and inspired programs that address child violence were part of the Forum’s undergirth, though surprisingly experience gained was less explored and assessed than I might have expected. That experience offers an important foundation for action but also for learning: for example that far better coordination and integration is needed. Addressing malnutrition is a good example: the topic is a high priority today at the international level, but religious actors and their experience could feature far more prominently than is the case in policy and programmatic approaches.
A few religious leaders spoke directly about the responsibilities of religious communities themselves for breaking silence and shattering tabus. They must, to be credible and effective, address violence within their own ranks and communities. The Forum’s audience and especially the contingent of young people cheered vigorously whenever Alaa Murabit, a doctor, scholar, and activist, and a Muslim, spoke. Dr. Murabit challenged the group from many directions, citing attitudes and practices like patriarchy, reference to the sanctity of traditions, and denial that contribute to violence against children. But she also conveyed a sense that together, with an honest willingness to confront both problems and responsibilities, action is possible.
An underlying and complex theme running through the event was how poverty and violence against children are connected. Ending poverty is a central thread in GNRC’s approach so the topic was front and center. It was, however, hard to pin down what this focus means in practical terms. Dr. Arns Neumann (Pastoral da Criança, Brazil) observed that if you wrestle with an octopus you need to deal with all the tentacles as well as the head. Child poverty is rather like a many-tentacled octopus and addressing it demands action on many fronts: quality education, jobs, women’s rights, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, fighting corruption, and family planning. Another constant refrain was the importance of family, though it was evident that participants often meant quite different things when they talked about family values and the challenges that families face in all societies. Many actors are involved, so networks and coordination are vital. With so many platitudes around the topic, robust discussion about what it means to end poverty might help in forming stronger partnerships. What this forum highlighted was that religious actors need to be far more directly involved in reflections on the topic.
Governance matters: that was another recurring theme. That means cutting through red tape, finding meaningful ways to monitor and evaluate, and fighting corruption with mind, soul, and energy. While talk along these lines is common, meaningful action is harder to identify. A hypothesis is that blunt and ethics-driven religious engagement can nudge things forward. Acting to end violence against children always involves multiple actors and disciplines. We know that cooperation, sharing, and coordination are vitally important but need far better ways of translating pious words into action.
Girls need special attention as several forms of violence affect them specifically. This may be the trickiest issue to address for religious actors as there is plenty of ambiguity, divergent, even contradictory views within communities and individuals as to why violence occurs, and where “limits” are. Challenges to traditional norms of masculinity are important.
Turning energy and willingness into action is far from easy and the roles of religious communities in ending violence against children pose complex challenges. In some areas the path is clear: advocacy is a natural, whether from pulpits and other religious fora and in political arenas. Religious leaders perform marriages so they can do much to end child marriage. The challenge is to harness the potential of this vast if fragmented (and sometimes fractious) set of communities.
The Forum (a fifth organized by GNRC, with the last in Tanzania in 2012) will be well documented, and it concluded with a rousing declaration calling for action, now, not tomorrow, now. Participants left with promises and specific commitments.
Some press coverage: