Children Seen as Lesser Humans

Humanity’s biggest mistake.

For the longest time in human history, women were widely regarded as the property of men. First owned by their fathers, the ownership of a woman was to then be passed down to a suitable (for the family, of course, not necessarily the woman herself) husband. Even though a great deal of the old patriarchal structures still exist in most countries, deeply misogynistic attitudes festering just under the surface, the concept of owning a woman — either as a daughter or a wife — has been fiercely fought against and essentially abandoned in many of the modern world’s societies.

This fight has primarily been driven by passionate females, with their ongoing efforts for equal rights on every possible level. Although long from over, the fight for women’s rights across the world has many strong voices that keep pushing it forward.

Sadly, there is a similarly enormous group of people, living around the world, that is still seen as property of others. Their rights are often disregarded and subjugated to the interests of those around them. They don’t have a say in the important decisions affecting them because others “know best”. And unfortunately, they don’t yet have their own strong voices to defend and promote even their basic rights.

Yes, they are the future generation that will shape this world, our children.

Child with Teddy-bear, sad, walking alone.
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

For those living in western societies, it might at first glance seem absurd and foreign, this concept of widespread disregard for the rights of children, but the issue is very real and in fact quite severe in practically every society around the world.

Yet, if you google “children’s rights”, you could easily be led to believe that the issue is taken seriously, at least on an international level.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

It was first in the 1950s that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations and by 1989, the much more comprehensive Convention on the Rights of the Child was opened for signature. Today, 196 countries have signed and ratified the convention, including every member of the United Nations except the United States.

“The Convention explains who children are, all their rights, and the responsibilities of governments. All the rights are connected, they are all equally important and they cannot be taken away from children.” — UNICEF

Among the 54 articles of the Convention, the rights of all children around the world are outlined; from the basic need for health, food, family support and protection from violence, to the right to play, to receive education, to have privacy, to be protected from exploitation and many more or less obvious ones.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child: A summary of all the 54 rights

And the Convention is not just a paper. There is a corresponding UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, a group of experts responsible for supervising the implementation of the Convention by the countries that have ratified it, with yearly reports and frequent issuing of relevant UN resolutions. There’s even the individual ability to appeal to the committee in case of great violations by a country.

Sounds very well structured, right?

Unfortunately, much like most other UN initiatives, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, despite all the supervising and reporting mechanisms around it, lacks a key ingredient that makes it much less meaningful in practice: it has by itself no power of enforcement. It cannot issue sanctions, fines, or any other kinds of punishment to those who violate the convention in larger or smaller scales.

Only the laws of individual countries can in practice be enforced. And those of course are vastly different and often poorly aligned with the rights outlined by the Convention. So, the reality when it comes to respecting children’s rights differs greatly between countries, but essentially none has managed to do a good job at this.

Societies neglect their children

Let’s take the case of Sweden, a country that has historically been amongst the most progressive in the field of human rights and gender equality.

The country’s progressive record and image has sadly been tarnished in recent decades however, by a number of systemic problems coming to the forefront. Among them, child abuse and the disregard for the rights of children in general has proven to be a serious issue that seems to only have worsened year after year.

While Sweden ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990, its laws have failed to protect children and their rights to a depressing extent. The Convention was finally incorporated into Swedish law on 1 January 2020, but still many wonder what the practical difference and implementation of this change would be. Within healthcare and social services for example, didn’t we already see to what is best for every child we meet?

The answer is of course complicated, but instead of theorizing, let’s look at a tragic example that demonstrates a big part of the problem.

In 2020, a court decided that the 3-year-old Esmeralda — separated from her biological parents as a newborn — should be ripped from the foster family she was raised in and given back to her parents, who had serious problems with crime and drugs around the time of her birth. Soon after the decision was enforced, the girl was found dead in her parents’ house, full of bruises and with drugs in her system. Her father died while in custody and her mother is now charged with murder.

The case drew a flood of media attention and sparked an intense debate in Sweden, primarily because of the little girl’s tragic death. But the case shows an utter disregard for children's rights, even before we get to the deadly outcome. You see, the law and social services deemed appropriate to take a little girl from the family that raised her, the family that she had come to know as her own, to be given to the biological parents she had never met.

In other words, the parents right to custody was put above Esmeralda’s right to be raised in a stable and safe family environment. This right of hers played essentially no role in the decision. No one seemed to understand what a serious trauma it would be for the little girl to be ripped from the family she knew and loved, to be given to her biological one after she had grown apart from them for practically all her 3 years of life. The fact that the parents were evidently gravely unfit to take care of a child, even after 3 years of separation, makes the case so much worse.

Such cases are of course just the peak of a huge iceberg.

To think how many children suffer every day for similar reasons, never noticed or protected, unless something very serious happens. Not that scarring a young person for life is not serious, but such trauma is mostly invisible to other people and society overall. Our species’ shortsightedness is very well established in so many ways after all.

Parents own their children

If the above example from Sweden sounds foreign to you, try to think what happens in your country. Do parents not have the right to take care of and raise their children as they see fit? I suppose the situation is similar, if not worse, but I would love to see a few comments with perspectives from other countries.

As far as I know, parents essentially have custody of their children, regardless of country or culture. It is only in recent decades that some basic limitations have been put on this principle. For example, parents are not allowed to abuse their children, physically or emotionally, they have to feed them, send them to school... and society has to take care of them if their parents are not capable of doing that. Of course, the extent to which those limitations are actually binding and enforced varies greatly, even across the western world.

But yes, even today, all children around the world are more or less the property of their parents.

Sad child, behind bars

To most people, it doesn’t seem odd or objectionable for parents to practically impose beliefs and opinions on their children or to deny them their identity if it contradicts their own. It is widely acceptable, and certainly not illegal anywhere in the world, to baptize your child or to disavow and shun them for their sexual orientation.

While child mistreatment is well-defined on national and international levels, clearly addressed for example by the World Health Organization, most parents experience zero negative consequences when abusing or neglecting their children, up to a degree — as the tragic example of Esmeralda shows. In most countries, it isn’t illegal to push your child to depression or to expose them to violence at home, even if striking them as punishment is. All these issues appear to be practically invisible for most.

For an actual separation from the parents, proof of serious harm to a child’s health and mental development must be presented to the police, the social services, or a court. You would think that at least in these settings, the child’s welfare is the deciding factor, but most often, like in Esmeralda’s case, the inquiry revolves around the parents’ right to the custody of the child.

Have the parents been objectively bad enough to be stripped of that right? Whether or how much harm the child in question has suffered and (is likely to suffer in the future) in the hands of its parents is only an afterthought, the child often not even asked.

And if this still seems too abstract for you, I’ll lend you my perspective for a minute. Because if the problem is invisible to you, for me it seems to manifest anywhere I look.

I see it literally everywhere

Once you start seeing things from the perspective of the child and children’s rights, you will start to notice how little their rights are taken into account. I can’t help seeing this every day around me:

  • As a pediatrician: well-studied medicine for adults haven’t been researched and tested for children (there is a much smaller market for them, so it is much less profitable to do so), which means we often have to rely on poor or empirical evidence to treat common pediatric conditions.
  • In (not) taking climate change seriously: while not significantly affecting us today, scientists warn that it is only going to get much worse, really fast. Preventing such a catastrophe would essentially be an investment for future generations, which obviously isn’t a very strong motivator for today’s elites, politicians, and voters, as Greta Thunberg has repeatedly pointed out.
  • Out on the street: parents are smoking in the car (and possibly at home, but that’s not for us to worry about, I guess) with their young children, gravely damaging their health and lung development — with no consequences of course… it’s their children after all, right?
  • In new laws: Greece is pushing a rule that gives men who physically abuse their partners equal custody of the children until actually proven to be bad parents. Sweden is just now discussing making it illegal for parents to expose their children to violence between them… As if direct beating and abuse was until now the only thing that’s truly damaging for a child.
  • In international business practices: child labor is commonly present, or even necessary, in many big companies’ international supply chains. Try googling Apple, Google, Microsoft and “child labor” to see how deep down the rabbit hole goes.
  • In the hypocrisy of anti-abortionists: they fight with nails and fists for the right of the unborn child to be born (even at the expense of everyone else’s rights, to the detriment of the whole planet maybe), but couldn’t care less about any of the 52 rights that comes after that — that becomes the mother’s problem, I suppose?
  • In the archaic educational system: its current structure, with hour-long lectures and obligatory subjects like math, science, and literature, has changed very little in the last centuries. This despite the enormously different world of the 21st century and the deeper understanding we have achieved about the psychological, social, and practical tools that are needed for healthy and socially well-functioning adults to develop.

And these are just a few of the examples that come to mind. Our world is built in every possible way for the benefit of today’s adults (some, unfairly more than others, of course). The good of the generations to come is most often just an afterthought. Most of the children’s rights are far, far, far from properly upheld in every level and country around the world, especially if adults have nothing to directly gain from respecting and protecting them.

Humanity’s undoing?

How can we be so shortsighted? Both as individuals and as a species. The fastest way to damage our future is to damage future generations. Or to simply fail to protect them.

To begin with, an enormous amount of future human suffering could be avoided if we all did our best for our children. Not in a narrow, parent- or custody-sense, but humanity’s children. To make sure that they grow up to be healthy, mentally strong, and independent adults. Not to promote what’s best for just their blood relatives or their own people, but to work for a better global future.

If not for anything else, to give humanity the best chance for survival. No “tribe” or “nation” can survive or flourish on its own, in today’s interconnected world, why is it so hard to see?

If we fail to pull our head out of the sand and continue this way, we leave our species and this planet to the hands of those who are the best manipulators, who crave most power and who can shout the loudest, regardless of what they actually say. Those who can hardly think about anything other than their problems and their image. Those that beat their wives and rape our daughters. Those who would rather blow us all up, rather than cooperate for a better common future.

You may not see it in every individual child, but the future depends on the children of today. On how our children, humanity’s children grow up to be the adults of tomorrow. And as it is today, we don’t even do a half-good job at taking care of them. We must do much better and take children’s rights way more seriously.

The future generations depend on it.

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