No42 october 2000.5
In the Third World
Child Killers, Child Victims
There are now some 300,000 young people under eighteen years of age who are being used as soldiers in some thirty areas of armed conflict across the world. Street children and orphans, refugees, young people abandoned by their families, are being rounded up to serve in armies, where they receive uniforms, guns and even a little wage. Better-class children manage to escape from the press-gangs. These child-soldiers are found in all the African conflicts and they are guilty of atrocious crimes. Many have seen their families killed and are then obliged to perpetrate similar horrors themselves. Some do not even know where they come from. They only know their military nicknames: Rambo, perhaps, or Killer Boy.
Their victims are for the most part innocent civilians: women, children, old men. The statistics are terrifying. Over the last ten years, twenty-eight million children have taken an active part in armed combats. Two million children have themselves been killed, one million have been orphaned, six million seriously wounded or crippled for life. Ten million suffer chronic psychological damage.
At the present time, millions of children in some fifty countries are caught up in situations of conflict or in their consequences. They are often the victims of sexual abuse and are torn from their homes. There are more than twenty million child refugees, inside or outside their own countries. These children account for more than half the displaced persons in the world.
These child-soldiers are being ruined by malnutrition and lack of hygiene and medicine, all essential elements for healthy growth. Most of them live in miserable conditions with no sanitation. Inevitably they grow up physically and psychologically damaged. In addition, about eight hundred children are killed or mutilated every month by land mines.
All this simply must stop. After the World Summit for Children in 1990, the United Nations and several countries, including Canada, along with various non-governmental organizations, have been trying to bring to the attention of the international community the sufferings of children caught up in armed conflicts. During the last decade a number of initiatives have been taken to help children who have been harmed by war in mind or body. We may think of the Conference hosted by Ghana and Canada in April 2000 to help children damaged by the war in West Africa, and a similar Conference was held in Winnipeg from 10 to 17 September 2000. Here is a relevant quotation taken from the latest issue of the magazine "Regard sur le Monde", published in Ottawa (n° 9, autumn 2000): "To protect children from harm and from suffering is a fundamental human instinct. Children represent our future, and everyone feels the need to shield them from whatever threatens their innocence and their hopes for the future. Action to protect children is one aspect of our wider aspiration for promoting human security and establishing stable and peaceful societies." (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, Accra, Ghana, April 2000)
"Let the little children come to me." Famous words from a famous Teacher of life. Yet, after twenty centuries of Christianity, we are still horrified by the spectacle of millions of children all over the world who are the innocent victims of adult folly or indifference.
One-third of the deaths in the world are of children of under three years.
One-and-a-half million children have been infected by AIDS. In Tanzania, 25% of the children in hospitals are sero-positive.
In Senegal, teachers in Koranic schools exploit 20,000 children by sending them out to beg on their behalf.
Two million children operate as prostitutes for the benefit of tourists in return for a bowl of rice or a quick drug.
In Abidjan there is a regular market in child-maids. The market-mistress may sell a child of between five and eight years for about five dollars. There are some 800,000 of these children, many of them mistreated and abused.
Two hundred million children, including two million in Europe, are working in frightful material conditions.
Twenty-four states of the USA continue to authorize the death penalty for minors between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.
In Canada hardly a day passes without headlines appearing in the newspapers about cases of child-abuse and of adolescents who have run away from home for one reason or another. Parents, families and communities no longer seem to know how to look after their young people. In Quebec growing numbers of incompetent or drug-addicted parents are endangering their childrens security. It is not surprising that so many adolescents are to be found on the streets, prostituting themselves in return for the daily dose of their drug. Last year Quebec Youth Centers helped nearly 100,000 children.
Down the centuries, Church organizations have always been especially preoccupied with looking after children. We may think of all the religious, of both sexes, who have worked devotedly in orphanages, schools and hospitals, while not forgetting the rare but still deplorable abuses which have been coming to light in recent years. The Sisters of St Vincent de Paul have been especially numerous and active, and still today many Christians, both religious and lay, are working away, far from the media, among abandoned children. Here are some examples:
At Lima, in Peru, "the father" Lebel tries to "tame" the packs of wild and ragged children who prey on tourists.
The Xaverian Father Claudio in Burundi is successfully bringing Hutu and Tutsi children to play and work together.
Father Jean-Claude Lemay, a Canadian Missionary of Africa in Kenya, cares for Nairobi street-children who have been abandoned by their parents.
Father Kozma, named in 1991 as "European of the year", persuaded the Serbs to allow the evacuation of thousands of women and children from Vukovar.
In the Lebanon, Father Labaky looks after 1,200 orphaned children, of different religions.
In the Province of Quebec, "Father Pops" looks after the skinheads and dropouts who are vegetating in the streets of Montreal.
In Manila, Father Tritz has established a foundation that has rescued 26,000 children from the gutter.
Sister Desmarais, a psychologist from Quebec, has gone to Rwanda to help children to overcome their fears and hatred after their terrible recent experiences.
In Brazzaville, Sister Marguerite Tiberghien has founded a special school for those excluded from normal schools. Her "School for Fools" has 1,300 pupils.
The Belgian Father Lefort found the courage to attack the powerful pedophile networks in the West, long before the scandals broke in August 1996.
These are examples of Christian men and women who, in the name of their faith, and in imitation of the One who came not to be served but to serve the poor and the powerless, have committed themselves to the service of the helpless. They have recognized in children in particular the virtues indispensable for growth in humanity: simplicity, trust, tenderness, the capacity for wonder.
No doubt, there are others besides Christians who give themselves to similar service, inspired by exemplary philanthropy and compassion. Whatever contributes to making our world more human is a sign of the Kingdom and makes those who practice it members of that Kingdom.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children was ratified by a record number of 191 States. Between that event and the Winnipeg International Conference a great deal has been achieved for children most in need. In September 2001 the General Assembly of the United Nations is to hold a special Session on children, and the first item on the agenda will be precisely "Children Affected by War".
In September Senator Pearson, a lady, declared that we must never lose hope even in the face of the vulnerability of children and of the atrocities they commit. She spoke of determination and hope: "I never cease to be astonished by the ability of poor children to survive. I have learned how much children can do for themselves if we only give them the means. Giving them the means is our task." The solution of these terrible problems of children, and the establishment of efficacious structures by the international community to help them, can only be achieved with the co-operation of children themselves. The child-killers and child-victims can become artisans of peace if we communicate to them our faith and love and if we offer active help to their families and communities to recover from the aftermath of conflict. Let us give them the instruments.
Michel Fortin, M. Afr.
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