Safeguarding children’s future

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 02 Nov 2011

The finest gift we, the adults, can bequeath to posterity is to ensure a safe, healthy, happy, educated and able generation of future youths.

IN recognition of Children’s Day, I wish to dedicate this column to the increasingly important issue of children’s rights.

John Kennedy once said that “children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”.

The finest gift we, the adults, can bequeath to posterity is to ensure a safe, healthy, happy, educated and able generation of future youths.

Ancient cultures entrusted heads of families with omnipotent authority over their children.

Infants and adolescents were comparable to property and, therefore, sellable. They had no safeguards against irresponsible and abusive exercise of parental authority.

However, in the 20th century, the idea that children too have human rights and a need for special protection began to be embodied in national and international codes.

Children have the right to a safe and secure environment, an adequate standard of living, healthcare, education, play and recreation. These include a balanced diet, a warm bed to sleep on, and access to compulsory and free schooling.

Children also have the right to protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and discrimination. This includes the right to safe places for children to play, constructive child rearing behaviour and protection against parents and guardians who indulge in child neglect or abuse. The minimum working age should be raised and there should be regulation of child labour and exploitation.

Disabled children, orphans, street children, stateless and refugee kids, victims of intra-family violence including physical, mental and emotional abuse deserve state support. Child marriages, sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution and child pornography should be combated with the might of the law.

There are contentious issues about how to deal with juvenile delinquents involved in criminal and underground activities, corporal punishment, juvenile incarceration without parole and death penalty for people under 21.

Most legal systems recognise different rules for juveniles caught in the web of criminal justice and special provisions for legal representation. Most legal systems seek to rehabilitate institutionalised children back into society.

Children too have the right to participate in community life and have programmes and services for themselves. This includes involvement in libraries, community programmes, youth activities and the right to be consulted on decisions affecting their lives. A contentious issue in custody proceedings is whether and to what extent the child’s wishes are relevant or whether the judge’s concept of the interest of the child is paramount. In some countries, children often sue their parents for emancipation. In the matter of a juvenile’s choice of religion, the approach in the United States is that a child who has reached “the age of discretion” is allowed to exercise autonomy in matters of conscience.

In Malaysia, in the Susie Teoh case, the court held that a child below 18 must follow his parent’s choice. This often causes painful dilemmas when one parent or both convert to another religion from the one the child was born in. The United Nation’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is a legally binding international instrument that incorporates the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights for children. The CRC is the most widely accepted human rights treaty with 190 ratifications including Malaysia’s.

In the Asian and African context, Malaysia has done well on children’s rights. Our ratification of the convention is backed by a number of laudatory domestic provisions.

We have the Child Act 2001 and the Domestic Violence Act 1994 that seek to create a protective legal environment for children. Anti-trafficking laws are in place. There are special rules for juvenile justice. Rights in respect of education, prohibition of slavery and forced labour are mentioned in the Constitution. Incest is a Penal Code offence.

Access to primary and secondary education is widespread. School fees for poor children were recently abolished. Free vaccinations, healthcare and family planning aid and advice are generally available. Incredible progress has been made on girls’ education. The number of babies dying before five years of age is insignificant. Unwed mothers were recently provided with baby hatches.

Of course, there are unmet challenges and undesired and undesirable consequences of some existing laws and practices.

In schools, however, we unwisely “stream” our children into science and arts streams, causing psychological damage and humiliation to many young kids. Our obsession with extra tuition classes and extra-curricular activities keeps our children tied to strict work regimes.

They hardly have time to enjoy childhood, fly kites, play marbles, chase butterflies and do the things we used to do as a child. Their childhood has been robbed.

Recreational facilities of the natural type for children are slowly disappearing. Rivers are turning into open sewerages. Many streams with fish have disappeared. Hills are being carted away by developers. Forests are being denuded. The environment is increasingly polluted.

I sometimes wonder what kind of a world we are going to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

> Shad Faruqi is Emeritus Professor at UiTM and Visiting Professor at USM.

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