Child Development in a Wholesome Environment For the Right to a Healthy Growth Environment

- For the right to a healthy growth environment-

What responsibility do we have to our children and grandchildren? It is our responsibility to pass on to the next generation a world in which we can live and which can be sustained.
- Mostafa K. Tolba, former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, and James P. Grant, former Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund

Unsustainable lifestyles in the industrialized countries and blind development schemes in the developing countries have come to pose a serious threat to the environment and to our children. The very future of our earth is in jeopardy. Destruction of forests and desertification are continuing unabated. Food production is hampered and malnutrition is on the increase. Furthermore, air and water pollution are having a serious impact on children's lives. A great number of children throughout the world are dying every year due to illnesses caused by the lack of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. The adverse effects of this situation on pregnant mothers and yet unborn children are increasingly apparent. The impact of these conditions is not only physical, but also psychological. Children are more vulnerable to these circumstances, but they are not the ones creating the problems. Adults are responsible for creating these problems.

An increasing number of the world's children are abandoned, displaced or victimized, living without the essential care of the family and community. There are also regional disparities in human deprivation, which disproportionately affect children. In the South Asian region, for example, 4.7 million children under the age of five die every year of preventable and curable illnesses. Two-thirds of the children who survive their first five years are malnourished. (Human Development in South Asia, 1999) Urbanization, poverty and the breakdown of the family structure have left millions of children displaced or forced to fend for themselves on the streets, where they are particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Girl children, as well as those from marginalized or minority groups, face additional discrimination and disadvantage.

The 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), entitled Our Common Future, emphasized the importance of "sustainable development"? that we should, without detriment to the needs of future generations, share with one another a development that meets the needs of the present generation. The key phrase of this report was "inter-generational equity," the concept that future generations should be afforded the right to live in the same safe, comfortable environment as the present generation does, and to obtain the basic essentials for living. It was also said that this inter-generational equity is as important as equality among ethnic groups, races, genders and countries.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, commits States that are party to it to realize the full spectrum of children's political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights. Virtually every country in the world recognizes the right of all children to the highest attainable standard of health, to facilities for the treatment of illness and the recovery of health. Going beyond this, however, the 1998 Executive Board Meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) discussed adding "spiritual well-being" to the physical, mental and social well-being already included in its definition of "health." The standard of health which the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees to children should incorporate the "spiritual well-being" discussed by the WHO as one of the indicators of health.

The process of child development is thus multidimensional. Creating enabling environments for the growth and survival of children requires an integrated development approach which takes into consideration physical, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural and spiritual factors. The importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD) for ensuring positive growth and development of children is now firmly established. Children themselves can be empowered to actively participate in programs that determine their own future.

Under such circumstances, how should the religious community best address the improvement of children's physical and psychological environments? How can we contribute to the promotion of health and nutrition? What sort of proposals do we have for tackling such issues as economic failure, which is one of the causes of harmful environments, poverty and discrimination?

The time has come for the religious community to play a greater role in providing the next generation of children with a healthy growth environment.

Questions for Discussion

1.      Why is the religious community important for child development in a wholesome environment?

2.      What is the role that religious communities can play in increasing the consciousness of the larger community as to its roles in  promoting prenatal care based on self-reliance and community participation? What should be the content of such an awareness program?

3.      What are the practical steps religious communities can promote within the larger community to improve environmental conditions that will contribute to better health and sustainable livelihood?

4.      How can the religious community obtain the cooperation of local, governmental, and international organizations to promote such programs?