For the right to a dignified and wholesome life
There were 60 participants from 25 countries in this study group. The theme for reflection was introduced by the chairperson, Ms Marta Palma (who presented the working document) and by Mr. Gauri Pradhan. Three major questions guided the work of the group:
- the values and principles that the different religions can offer the world for building communities in which children can live in dignity;
- the possibility of harmonizing the needs for protection and guidance with children’s rights to freedom, self-reliance and participation;
- the possibilities for religious people, out of their faith and moral responsibility, to take action on the critical issues related to child victims of violence and suffering resulting from the indifference of the adult world and its institutions.
These were areas in which concrete actions were called for.
Major reflections emerging from the discussions
Rights of children ? present status
Religions strongly believe in the right of all children to dignified and wholesome lives. This dignity is not something adults give to children, but is something they receive as a divine gift. Realistically, the rights of children cannot be separated from those of the family and the community to which they belong. If the lot of children is to improve, therefore, there is a strong need for changes in the family, in the community and in society. Religions are well placed to influence society for social change and the protection of the inviolable rights of the child. They are also well placed to challenge governments who remain inactive in the face of many forms of child abuse and exploitation.
Increasing poverty is causing children to suffer and is weakening the familyfs capacity to provide for their basic needs, including love, care, food, medicine and education. A favourable atmosphere for children is declining both in the family and in the community, so these are not always safe places for children to live free from uncertainty and with dignity. Social and economic inequalities together with unfulfilled promises and lack of political will to translate commitments into action; the external debt that imposes a crushing burden on children and women especially; the deterioration of positive traditional values and norms; religious intolerance and conflicts and the absence of an appropriate natural environment — these are at the root of the dramatic debacles and heart-rending sufferings of children around the world.
Millions of children fall into juvenile delinquency every year because of the negative environment that surrounds them. These are among the most victimized, due to the lack of appropriate legal and human support.
Children in more developed parts of the world may seem to be better off than those in other areas, but many of them are growing up spiritually impoverished, with self-centred value systems, largely unaware of the plight of children in disadvantaged parts of the world. In many situations, they also suffer from poverty.
Sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children, has become one of the most nefarious as well as tragic problems affecting children. In a number of countries, children, particularly girls, fall into the trap of child marriage and sexual abuse. Abuse and violence against children is rampant even in so-called developed countries. Religious leaders must strongly advocate redress of this situation and protection of these children. It is their duty, born of faith and moral responsibility, to work together with their communities to influence the behaviour of individuals, groups, communities and societies towards redressing such abuse.
Millions of children are forced to live on the streets of big cities, exposed to all kinds of violence and danger — including from law enforcement authorities themselves. Every day children are killed on the streets in certain cities, often as a tragic consequence of misconceived gclean-uph operations. Their terrible fate has to be recognized as the result of a plan executed in an organized way.
Moreover, in developing countries many children are forced to start working in exploitative and dangerous conditions at an early age, sometimes against their will, sometimes in order to support their families and almost always to aid their unsupported mothers. Such children are battling for recognition of their contribution to the survival of their families, while at the same time they struggle for the right to work in conditions of dignity and security, and (most important) with appropriate access to literacy and education.
Hundreds of thousands of children have been infected with the HIV virus or are suffering from AIDS, particularly in Africa, but the attention paid to this has been grossly insufficient. Religious people need to work with governments in order to ensure that they both have and implement effective policies for prevention and adequate care in relation to this deadly scourge. The self-destruction of children through drug abuse and their involvement in the distribution of drugs are also serious problems in many parts of the world.
Reflection on the various facets of these problems made the group more aware of the tremendous human and spiritual suffering of children and the urgent need to regard them not as numbers or statistics but as complete — though tragic — human beings, with enormous gifts to contribute to the community and to society as a whole.
The group recognized a general inability until now to promote and implement effective actions that can bring real transformation in the lives of these children. At the same time, society must acknowledge with gratitude the numerous initiatives and constructive measures by social workers, service agencies, religious groups and institutions, and children themselves. Theirs is the work that lights and keeps burning the torch of hope.
Values and principles to be propagated
Religions have placed a strong emphasis on the unique value of childhood and the promise children represent for the present and future of humanity. Thus, religious communities must act in favour of children out of their faith, moral responsibility, and their belief in justice and the transforming power of authentic love.
The predominant values in modern and materialist societies are, in most cases, based on competition, individualism and the decay of a culture of love and solidarity. Adult-centred societies today are failing to provide children with a basic healthy environment in which to grow and develop their full potential.
All religions value life and the importance of each individual in the community. While governments and international institutions support this with various kinds of legislation, unfortunately it is not always reflected in practical measures to protect children and prevent child abuse. All religions share the values and principles of humanity, justice, mutual respect, love and understanding. They also place a high value on the recognition and acceptance of diversity.
The group felt that the values and principles necessary for child protection and alleviation of suffering are already in place; there is no need for any new ones. What is needed, however, is to find effective new mechanisms to implement these long-established principles and values, and not to shrink from identifying double standards in society, such as preaching love and practising hate. Religions are called to uphold these principles in their worship, teaching and practice.
On the basis of shared values, religions are called to contribute to the building of a new, spiritual civilization which is more compassionate to children and to those who have been marginalized, thus ushering in a new culture of peace, compassion and harmony with nature.
Empowerment of children
In an adult-centred world, the voices of children are not heard, their opinions are not taken into consideration and their contributions are not valued. Children are not listened to. Institutions generally lack flexibility to integrate children, who are perceived as incomplete beings. Even in stable and loving families, children are often considered as second-class citizens until they attain adulthood. This view needs to be challenged and a new concept of partnership between children and adults developed, based on the conviction that children have rights and are capable of making unique and insightful contributions to the search for solutions to their problems.
Working for children is not just charity. It is a blueprint for social change. Given the opportunity, children can demonstrate positive actions for peace and the improvement of their life conditions, with hope and tenderness. The Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the right to participation; this should be respected and implemented by all members of society in order that childrenfs empowerment for participation may be promoted.
Although religious people do not always put children on their agenda, religious communities are well positioned to give dignity to the lives of children, enfolding them with love and acceptance, promoting their self-esteem, self-reliance and self-respect, and advocating full regard for their rights. This is particularly important for children who have experienced discrimination, rejection, exploitation and abuse. Only through viewing the positive contributions of children with authentic acceptance will adults be enabled to work together with them in building a more wholesome world.
Rights of the family
The child’s first experience of love, nurture and participation should and must take place in the family, which constitutes the primary unit of society. But poverty, unemployment and family disintegration are at the root of childrenfs suffering and marginalization in many parts of the world. Families, particularly children, are also negatively affected by war and conflict situations as well as by forced migration. Too often, neither the family nor the community has the necessary means to provide for the physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development of children.
In many cases, the family environment is psychologically or physically detrimental for children, many of whom suffer from domestic violence or are forced to run away from home in search of their own security. There are more than 100 million street children in the world today. Adolescent pregnancy is growing — in direct relationship to increasing poverty in many countries.
It is not possible, therefore, to talk about the rights or well-being of the child without focusing on the rights of the family and the rights of the community. No human being is an island — so neither is any child. The family is the unit which religious bodies have long acknowledged to be pivotal. The full weight of religious authority must be thrown into the creation of circumstances that will contribute to the economic, moral and social betterment of the family, especially where children are endangered. Religions must challenge governments to develop and implement social policies that benefit families within the context of integrated strategies to alleviate and eradicate poverty.
Selective but firm and uncompromising intervention by organized religion will go a long way to send a clear message in favour of the empowerment of children and their families to governments and other influential bodies who have a say in the emerging destiny of children.
We call upon religious communities around the world:
- To identify the problems facing children within the community, declare them a priority, and involve the members of the community in their solution.
- To become involved in the sociological process of revitalizing the family, and to challenge governments to develop social policies and programmes that benefit families and address the specific needs of children.
- To encourage religious communities and governments to accept the need to establish nurturing family structures when the family may not be meeting the childfs needs.
- To become aware of specific or unique problems affecting children in their area and to alert/use the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) to inform and to seek support from world religious communities.
- To convene regional action forums within the GNRC framework to address specific problems faced by children in the regions and to determine courses of action for solving specific problems.
- To use the GNRC framework to put pressure on the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to deny loans to corrupt political regimes that allow sex tourism and sexual exploitation of children, and to include proven track records on children’s rights in the criteria for funding projects.
- To encourage people of all religions in the richer parts of the world to raise awareness of the plight of children in poorer countries particularly among their own children, and to identify practical ways in which they can reach out to their gbrothers and sistersh in other parts of the world.
- To organize support for deeply distressed children in urban societies, helping to prevent serious depression and suicide, through establishing hot lines and drop-in centres, including premises and support staff. GNRC members could offer their help and collaborate with the authorities of such premises.
- To campaign for legislation to control the proliferation of child pornography through multi-media and service providers.
- To vigorously lobby and question the failure of governments to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to protest all individual violations.
- To educate the public and their communities about the rights of the child and the abuses to which children are subjected.
- We call upon the Arigatou Foundation to fortify the implementation of the GNRC through the following actions:
- To create regional networks to encourage, communicate and publicize constructive action and good practice.
- To encourage participation of children and their empowerment for leadership, provide occasions to listen to childrenfs voices, and promote their freedom of creative expression through the arts and sport.
- To set up a steering/monitoring group to organize GNRC activities, including monitoring of adherence to ethical moral principles.
- To take an advocacy role, utilizing the moral influence of religious leaders and their organizations, to persuade governments and the World Bank/Asia Development Bank/Inter-American Development Bank to address childrenfs rights, prevent sex tourism and Internet pornography, and confront violation of childrenfs rights, wherever they occur.
- To set up specific family initiatives, for example, a gYear of the Familyh or something similar, to focus on family-based and family-engineered solutions to childrenfs problems.
- To enable the GNRC to become an effective pressure group, advocating for childrenfs rights and redress of suffering, through direct mailings, the Internet, etc.; to prepare and distribute information-exchange journals to GNRC members, other interested groups and others who should be informed.
- To create working groups to study specific issues and be in contact with legislators who will collaborate in facilitating better policies in relation to children — possible working groups/ issues to include the rights of families, street children, child labour/child work, child abuse and exploitation, and children and HIV.
- To support the establishment of international and regional courts/forums for childrenfs rights, and implement a global referendum to obtain children’s opinions on issues that affect them.
- The GNRC should be a platform for information exchange to facilitate closer mutual understanding, to provide occasions for listening to childrenfs voices, and to enable closer linkages and relationships for mutual enrichment among religious people, NGOs and local people around the world.
- We call on international financial institutions:
- To consider a nationfs track record in the prevention of sex tourism, child pornography on the Internet and child prostitution, and in terms of the empowerment of children, as key criteria for granting financial assistance or loans.
- To recognize that international debt imposes a crushing burden on the weakest strata of society, particularly women and children who had no role in its creation, use or misuse; and thereafter to adopt a policy of judicious cancellation of debt if a country radically transforms its child empowerment and protection; realizing the debt with the provision of using a part of the amount for the development of women, children and their families; maintaining the principal of the debt, but allowing the country to use the debt servicing (interest) for the benefit of children and women.
- Not to finance or aid corrupt governments with a known record of colluding with vice involving children, since not only are the children harmed beyond repair, but also the funds are misspent, leaving only a debt to be serviced by the present and future generations of children. We call upon international financial institutions not knowingly to be party to the destruction of the future of children through no fault of their own
We call upon the participants in this First Forum:
- To support the initiation of new children’s programmes at the local level, involving and organizing grassroots people, especially those with religious backgrounds; to facilitate research on issues of mutual concern, plan actions collaboratively at the local level, and possibly conceive ways of initiating new programmes in relation to shared concerns.
- To inform the grassroots members of the network about each otherfs activities and problems and encourage them to continue to help each other, developing the opportunities facilitated by the opening of the GNRC home page.
- To encourage the participation of children and their continued empowerment for leadership, to provide opportunities for childrenfs voices to be heard, and to promote their freedom of creative expression through the arts and sport.
- To convene groups to discuss and act on childrenfs issues, in effect creating an expanding nucleus of people working seriously for children, constituting a prospective and effective member base for the GNRC.
- To form (through networking) national interreligious monitoring groups that will oversee government compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child; this will require close collaboration among the GNRC, the Arigatou Foundation and all religious bodies in a given country.
- To devise measures to protect, support and unite behind members who are in danger or are being threatened or harassed by vested interests, including law-enforcement bodies, because of their work with children and the protection they are extending to abused or sexually exploited children.
- To support each other through sharing, reflection, common action and prayer.
The Global Network of Religions for Children is the beginning of a movement that has the potential to become the most far-reaching movement in modern times. It is certainly unique. At a time when many regions of the world are being torn apart by religious differences, the GNRC has brought all the major religions of the world onto a single platform, in harmony and goodwill and with a resolve to work for the dignification of the lives of the children of the world, irrespective of nationality or religion. The world has rarely seen such a noble mission.
It is a mission which will not only rescue suffering children but will also give them the possibility to enter into a new partnership with adults in building a better future and, in so doing, giving birth to a lasting peace — peace not based on balance of power or mutual deterrence, but promoted by the best of human ideals: love, justice, compassion and harmony. We commit ourselves to working together with the Arigatou Foundation to make this a reality.