Dorina was born in a small village in the Republic of Moldova, formerly of the Soviet Union and now the poorest nation in Europe. Abandoned by both her parents at a young age, she grew up poor in her grandparent’s house. At 16 she graduated from secondary school and went to the capital, Chisinau, to find work. There she met an acquaintance from her village who promised her a better job as a waitress in Moscow. “The salary and the tips are very good,” he promised. “And if you don’t like it you could come back at any time.”
The next day, Dorina was on a train headed for Moscow. But there she was met by a 55-year-old Moldovan man who took her to an apartment filled with other girls her age and confiscated her passport. Dorina was now in the hands of traffickers. The day after her arrival she was told to get dressed and taken to ‘work’ with the other girls. “It was a meat market,” she says. “Clients could choose the girls they liked and the pimp threatened us that if we screamed or resisted he would beat us to death.”
Dorina was sexually abused by a man who ‘bought her’ for one night. During the following four months, night after night she and the other girls were taken out to the streets, regardless of their physical state, and forced to prostitute. “Sometimes we did not sleep for four days, other times we were starved,” she says. “During the winter they forced me to drink alcohol so that I wouldn’t freeze.”
Every year over a million children are trafficked for sex or for cheap labor. Sixteen-year-old ‘Anna’ was trafficked for sex shortly after she turned thirteen. “In Romania I had eight clients a day, in Turkey four or five a day and in Spain, ten. Of course some of the clients beat you,” she said. “That is how they treat you.”
Trafficking of children usually involves adolescent girls for sexual exploitation, but there is increasing evidence of younger children being trafficked for forced labor and begging.
This morning, I want to numb you, or better, reflect with you on some facts, figures and statistics about the collateral damage being done to children in the US and around the world. As we say in our time of joys and concerns, what touches one of us touches us all. Because they are our children, what we do to them, what we say about them, affects our individual and collective soul.
I want us to put the children of the world in perspective.
Marion Wright Edelman¹ and the Children’s Defense Fund compiled some key facts about American children:
1 in 2 never complete a single year of college.
1 in 3 will be poor at some point in their childhood.
1 in 3 is behind a year or more in school.
1 in 5 was born poor.
1 in 6 is poor now.
1 in 6 is born to a mother who did not receive prenatal care in the first three months of pregnancy.
1 in 7 never graduates from high school.
1 in 8 has no health insurance.
1 in 8 lives in a family receiving food stamps.
1 in 8 has a worker in their family but still is poor.
1 in 9 is born to a teenage mother.
1 in 12 has a disability.
1 in 13 was born with low birth weight.
1 in 13 will be arrested at least once before age 17.
1 in 14 lives at less than half the poverty level.
Among industrialized countries, the United States ranks first in military technology, first in military exports, first in Gross Domestic Product, first in the number of millionaires and billionaires, first in health technology, first in defense expenditures.
On the other hand, among industrialized countries, the US is 12th in living standards among our poorest one-fifth, 13th in the gap between rich and poor, 14th in efforts to lift children out of poverty, 16th in low-birth weight rates, 18th in the percent of children in poverty, 23rd in infant mortality and last in protecting our children against gun violence.
Black infant mortality rates in our nation’s capital exceed those in 50 nations including Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, and Oman. In UNICEF’s 2004 State of the World’s Children, the U.S. ranked lower on maternal mortality than 32 other countries (140 of 172) including Ghana, Lithuania, Croatia, and Syria. The US lagged behind 33 other nations (160 of 193) on infant mortality rank.²
The human rights of children and the standards to which all governments must aspire in realizing these rights are most concisely and fully articulated in one international human rights treaty: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was carefully drafted over 10 years, between 1979-1989 with the input of representatives from all societies, all religions and all cultures. A working group charged with the drafting of the document was made up of members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, independent experts, and non-government agencies.
The convention’s goal is to place children centre-stage in the quest for the universal application of human rights. By ratifying this instrument, national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring fundamental civil liberties to children and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. The Convention is the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history – it has been ratified by every country in the world except two, Somalia and the United States.
The Convention spells out the basic human rights that should be afforded children everywhere, regardless of where they were born or to whom, regardless of sex, religion, or social origin. Under the Convention children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights.
The most fundamental and first of the Convention’s principles is the right to survival. The others include the right to develop to the fullest; protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and full participation in family, cultural and social life.
Every right spelled out in the Convention is in keeping with our fundamental Unitarian Universalist principle that is there is an inherent human dignity in every child everywhere.
The idea of everywhere is important. Many assume that the rights of children born in wealthy nations – where schools, hospitals and juvenile justice systems are in place – are never violated, that these children have no need for the protection and care called for in the Convention. But that is far from the truth. To varying degrees, at least some children in all nations face unemployment, homelessness, violence, poverty and other issues that dramatically affect their lives.
More than a billion children living in poverty around the world are still at risk. They don’t have the basic services they need to survive, grow and develop, and many are exploited.
“The test of our progress,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little.” In that spirit, FDR and the Congress did something far different than what is being done today. In 1935, they provided what would be in today’s money, $200 billion for youth employment, and $15 billion for free grants to low-income college students every year.³ Today I see no one high in government offices urging that kind of response to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
There is no doubt that there are numbers of children and teens who live lives that are far from exemplary, children who are violent, teens who kill, and steal and abuse each other. Many argue that throwing money at problems won’t cure them, and others say more money to schools won’t educate better either, but history says that’s not true. Several historians have shown how the GI Bill, granting college tuition to W.W. II and Korean War veterans was the primary difference in the successful lives of thousands of young veterans, and was one of the most influential reasons for the post-war prosperity of the United States. Of course, money isn’t all, but taking money away from college grants and support for poor families harms children and balancing the budget on the backs of the poor is bad policy.
Dr. Edelman, writes: “I believe adults have no right to ask children to do what we are not doing or to assume sole or primary responsibility for problems we adults have created. It is adults who have engaged in epidemic neglect and abuse of children and of each other in our homes . . . It is adults who have taught our children that hate, racial and gender intolerance, violence, greed, and selfishness are family values. It is adults who have borne children and then left them to raise themselves. It is adults who have left millions of children behind without basic health care, decent child care, education, jobs or moral guidance. . . And it is adults who have to stand up and be adults and accept our responsibility to morally guide, parent, protect and invest in the young.”⁴
I would like to conclude with a statement that I know will seriously offend, or at least be quite controversial to many of you, but I want to suggest that before the world will begin to care about children the world will need to move men to the background and put woman in charge. Men have had their chance to govern and as I look about they have done it well some of the time, but it is time for them to step aside and let women run things for a while. It is women who understand and care deeply about children. Not that men don’t, but so far they haven’t. It is time for a new perspective to be brought to bear on the world’s stage, and that will happen when women are voices of leadership in all parts of the globe.
1. Mrs. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College, which she chaired from 1976 to 1987, and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation, on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received many honorary degrees and awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings, which include seven books: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; and I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children.
2. Children’s Defense Fund, State of America’s Children, 2004.
3. ibid. pp. 264-5.
4. Marion Wright Edelman in introduction to The State of America’s Children. The Children’s Defense Fund. 1994. p. xxv.
© 2004 Richard Venus