On many occasions, it has been pointed out that poverty is at the root of the many problems facing children around the globe. Poverty is one of the chief obstacles to implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It leads to violations of children’s rights such as infant mortality, malnutrition, undue suffering from easily preventable diseases, commercial sexual exploitation, HIV/AIDS, use of children in armed conflict, exploitation of child labor, homelessness, and educational deprivation.
At the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Social Development held in June 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked that the highest priority be given to addressing the problem of poverty. At the Millenium Summit, too, many countries took up the eradication of poverty as one of the primary tasks for the 21st century. It is widely recognized that the gap between rich and poor countries – and between the rich and poor within both developed and developing countries – is ever widening. It is clear that, more than ever, the eradication of poverty needs to be at the top of every agenda.
Understanding poverty as a complex, socio-economic phenomenon, it is also necessary to recognize that it has a spiritual dimension. Indeed, it is often observed that some “rich”people suffer from spiritual poverty, whereas some “poor” people are spiritually rich. It is clear that poverty exists not only in the material dimension. The spiritual and material aspects of poverty are in fact closely related.
It is obvious that material poverty obstructs the sound physical development of the child. But in many cases, it can also wear down the awareness of the intrinsic value and dignity of being human, which in turn leads to unhealthy relationships among individuals and sectors of society. In this sense, material poverty is one of the primary obstacles to the manifestation of human physical and spiritual holiness, the innate potential for which lives originally inside each human being.
Children in poverty are unable to receive adequate healthcare. They are robbed of educational opportunity, and as a result, after becoming adults, can obtain only a minimal income. When their children are born, reborn with them is the vicious cycle of impoverishment.
Recent economic globalization, driven chiefly by unrestrained financial speculation made possible by advances in information technology, is making this process of impoverishment even more rapid and far-reaching, allowing unprecedented richness for a few and leaving increasing numbers of people behind in absolute poverty.
It is spiritual poverty that is behind this misuse of our national and international economies. What takes place in a free market economy reveals the spiritual condition of its members. In particular, two manifestations of spiritual poverty – exclusive preoccupation with self and corresponding lack of concern for the disadvantaged, and the heart of greed that pursues excessive personal wealth regardless of the consequences for others – are distorting socioeconomic structures and impoverishing whole societies.
In this sense, it can be said that the very fact that a society – today’s international community, for example – allows some of its members to live in material poverty reveals that the society itself, as a whole, is spiritually poor. The tragic consequences of this spiritual poverty are seen even among the materially wealthy, where increasing rates of youth suicide, self-destructive drug abuse and violence reveal the severe lack of hope and meaning young people are experiencing in their lives.
The problem of poverty is thus a multidimensional phenomenon. It has material, economic, social, psychological and spiritual aspects, and is complicated by intergenerational processes and structural factors. It is essential to take a comprehensive approach that maximizes synergies among the many fronts of the fight to put an end to poverty.
If children are to be truly free from its grip, we must break the cycle of impoverishment being handed down through the generations. A transformation of the values in the international community that perpetrate the ongoing existence of human suffering from poverty is desperately needed. Children themselves can be the liberators of the future. That is why it is essential that families, societies and governments create conditions of justice now in which all children – both girls and boys – receive the early developmental care they need and can exercise their right to a good quality basic education. Environments that give full play to children’s innate abilities must be fostered and sustained. Children that grow up in these conditions will in turn contribute better values to the international community. International values that emphasize concern for the rights of children in all sectors of society need to be cultivated to assist individual societies to create these conditions for children, and education is a powerful means of conveying such values.
As international organizations and NGOs tackle the eradication of poverty in their various fields, religious people, with the mission to change the world starting with the heart – from the inside-out – have a unique contribution to make in the area of education. We believe we can play a particularly effective role in the peace and health education which are so essential in the fight against war and disease, as well as in education that includes such spiritual values as faith, ethics and justice. We are also moved to work through education by the recognition that, in any effort to combat poverty, it is indispensable to work with the poor themselves, empowering them to exercise their own human rights.
Though education is fundamental to the eradication of poverty, we also recognize that it is only a partial approach. Key issues impacting poverty are armed conflict and military occupation, debt relief, unemployment, trade, international financial capital, and labor rights, among others. In all these areas, major initiatives that promote just national and international orders are needed. As we focus on education, we will also offer direct and indirect support to such initiatives.
Our dream is this: as children beaten down by poverty awaken to their own human dignity and regain the joy of living and hope for the future, their own unlimited potential will be revealed. This in turn, through renewing relationships among individuals and various sectors of society, will lead to freedom from the vicious cycle of poverty. To build the capacities of families and societies to realize these aims, what is sought from all religious people everywhere is the beginning of a silent revolutionary movement of the heart.
With the 10th anniversary of the World Summit for Children, the Special Session of the UN General Assembly for Follow-up to the World Summit for Children will be held in September 2001 to review the efforts of the international community for children over the last decade and to adopt a new vision and action plan.
The Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), which was inaugurated in May 2000, has confessed that religious people have failed until now to take sufficient action to address the problems children are facing. The GNRC is creating new opportunities for interreligious cooperation on initiatives for children and aims to develop a grassroots global movement for children in the 21st century initiated by the religious people of the international community, working in cooperation with international organizations, national governments, NGOs, businesses, scholars, and people from all other walks of life.
Thus, as a first step, in the lead-up to this September’s Special Session on Children, as a religious NGO and from the standpoint of religious people, the GNRC plans to launch poverty eradication initiatives focused on education.
Based on the spirit of the GNRC Statement, we are specifically preparing to: set up working groups of religious people with GNRC members at their core in the regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America; seek appropriate regional approaches and roles for religious people; and enter into concrete initiatives in collaboration with international organizations such as UNICEF, as well as NGOs.