The global pandemic of abusive behavior towards children is the human species’ ultimate form of self-sabotaging behavior. Execrable as they are, out of sheer psychic necessity we avoid adding up the individual bits and pieces and totaling the damages; quite simply, we can no longer process all the horror that we are confronted with.
But this isn't about one or two instances that we can pawn off as an aberration, it’s not just about Boy Scout leaders accused of child pornography or clergy accused of sodomy. We are talking about human rights abuses on a grand scale, abuses that add up to some sort of hideous endgame where if we can't pollute, poison, nuke or bomb ourselves to death, then we go to Plan B and make damned sure that the next generation doesn't stand a chance of survival.
It is beyond comprehension that we can live with ourselves in good conscience while 640 million children in the world do not have adequate shelter and 500 million have no access to sanitation. What excuse could there possibly be for 270 million children lacking healthcare and 90 million being severely food-deprived? And why is it that 140 million children (mostly girls) have never been to school and more than a million children throughout the world work in mines?
It is crucial to understand that these problems are not exclusive to non-industrialized nations. In 11 out of 15 industrialized nations, for all of our affluence and wealth, the proportion of children living in low-income households has risen during the last decade.
Here in the United States, one out of six children live in poverty. In the state of Alabama, a whopping half of all public schoolchildren live in poverty and in one county, the rate is 100%. One in eight (9.3 million) children in the U.S. have no health insurance.
Further, according to the Children's Defense Fund's “The State of America's Children 2004," an estimated three million American children a year are suspected victims of child abuse and neglect, eight die from gunfire each day and almost one out of every ten teens between the ages of 16 to 19 is a school dropout. Last year the rate of juvenile homicides in Washington, DC doubled. It should perhaps come as no surprise, given how we treat our own children, that the U.S. is one of only two countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the other is Somalia).
Armed conflict throughout the world inflicts a profoundly heinous toll on the lives of children. Save The Children reports that some three million children are involved in armed conflict, of which approximately 40% are girls, many as young as eight years of age. Most of the girls and many of the boys have been sexually violated.
According to UNICEF, during the last decade, two million children have been killed in conflicts, between four and five million have been disabled. Twelve million children have been left homeless and more than one million orphaned or separated from their parents. Ten million children have been psychologically traumatized. In countries experiencing conflict, children who are detained are often treated as adults. Seymour Hersh reports that according to Pentagon documents, hundreds of children have been held by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq and we have learned recently about children being held at Guantanamo. (1)
The U.S. is certainly not the only country to incarcerate children. In a recent interview with Justin Podur, human rights advocate Sahar Francis explained that Israel also has a policy of incarcerating children,
“Israel does not apply the international definition of a child (under 18) to Palestinian children, though it does apply that definition to its own children, for the purposes of incarceration. According to the military orders Palestinian children of 16 years old are jailed as adults. There are no juvenile courts in the military system Palestinians are subject to (there are in the Israeli civil system for Israeli children). The same torture practices are used against children as against adults.” (2)
The toxic nature of modern weaponry has a particularly devastating impact on the lives of children. In Vietnam, some 150,000 children born to those exposed to Agent Orange during the war 30 years ago have been born with birth defects. Perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel used by the military, has recently been found in water and breast milk samples in numerous locations in the United States. A known carcinogen, it is not yet clear what the impact of this toxin is on the health of children.
In Iraq, doctors report a significant rise in birth defects and childhood cancer during the last few years, likely due to the parent's exposure to depleted uranium and radiation and other chemical weapons. Birth defects have increased from a rate of 11 per 100,000 births in 1989 to 116 per 100,000 in 2001. There were 650 reported cases in public hospitals between August 2003 and May 2005. The incidence of cancer among children rose 242% in the years between 1990 and 1999. Since much more depleted uranium was used in the recent war than in the early 1990’s and since many cancers take several years to develop, the rates are expected to continue to rise. In addition, the rate of malnutrition among Iraqi children under the age of five has doubled since the U.S. invasion of Iraq according to the UN Human Rights Commission.
It is likely that we are only just beginning to comprehend the serious consequences that environmental pollution and damage has for children. In Immokalee, FL, clusters of birth defects are being found among babies born to migrant farm workers who were exposed to pesticides. Indeed, a suit was recently filed by a coalition of farm workers, environmentalists and public health advocates alleging that the EPA has failed to protect children from pesticides used on farms. Doctors also believe that as many as 600,000 babies suffer permanent brain damage because of their mothers' exposure to Mercury emitted from power plants that is absorbed by fish and then consumed by pregnant women.
Earlier this year, the New York Times published a frightening list of toxins now found regularly in breast milk. They included, PCB's, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic coming from sources such as paint thinner, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants. It is also now known that women who breathe air polluted with smoke and exhaust fumes are up to 4 times more likely to have children who develop cancer.
A recent study also found that gender-bending phthalates (used to make plastic more pliable) have been found in the urine of pregnant women. Boys born to women with higher levels of four different phthalates were more likely to have smaller penises, undescended testicles and other feminizations similar to those seen in animals exposed to these chemicals. The report also noted that when this occurs in male animals, levels of aggression, as well as parenting and learning skills are affected.
Girls throughout the world are at particular risk. According to Dr. Lynette Dumble of the Global Sisterhood Network, some 200 million girls are missing from expected populations, with the worst occurrences taking place in countries such as India and China, victims of female feticide and infanticide. Further, hundreds of thousands of girls have been trafficked throughout the world, sold for body parts and sexually and economically enslaved. (3)
As I have sifted through the evidence of our collective irresponsibility, I keep asking myself what it says when all the sordid pieces are added together, and praying for some divine insight as to how to end these tragedies. I have two wonderful and precious children whom I love fiercely, and for whom I would do anything necessary to protect their well-being. If anything happened to them, it would be a wound from which I would never recover.
But the imperative for ending abusive behavior towards the world’s children goes beyond moral or emotional repugnancy, it’s also a lousy investment policy. Children are the future of our species, if we do not care for and nurture them, we humans have little to look forward to.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org which publishes Atrocities, a bulletin documenting violence against women throughout the world. Her work has been published in numerous publications including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine, Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse. Copyright © 2005 by Lucinda Marshall
The Unknown Unknowns Of The Abu Ghraib Scandal:
10 Inquiries Into Prisoner Abuse Have Let Bush & Co Off The Hook
by Seymour Hersh, The Guardian -- UK, May 21, 2005.
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Exclusion of Women as Sources Impedes Meaningful Reform