“In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people”, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Humans love to believe in myths They are essential to adopting a collective pattern of behaviour. There is however a growing call for replacing myths with a new global ethic that could meet contemporary challenges like environmental degradation and extreme gaps between the rich and poor. Child rights are one such popular myth. We are made to believe that borrowed ideas from international conventions and instruments, force-fitted into ceremonial and obfuscated child rights laws, acts, commissions, authorities and bureaus will deliver the much-needed child protection in Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With each passing year, this ‘more of the same’ approach has only worsened our standing in every index of child rights — be it out-of-school children, child labour or child abuse. Thus, there is a need for more sober and ab initio rethinking on child rights, their myths and realities.
Children are like birds in a society. Birds fly, not because they have any inherent right or monopoly legislated by an act of parliament. They do so because they have wings that evolved over centuries to help escape predation. Also, they do so only when they get enough space to climb, dive, hover and glide. The ‘rights of a bird’ are thus protected by its biological capacity and the physical environments it lives in. Not a thousand laws, commissions and conventions can make a bird fly if its wings are clipped or when the bird is shut in a cage. Birds are therefore least interested in any mythological ‘rights’ granted by a United Nations body. We, on the contrary, continue to seek refuge in myths instead of focusing on improving the capacity and environments needed for the protection and growth of our children.
Let us begin with the basics. Parents sell their eight-year-old daughters to become domestic workers and be abused and killed, not because they wish to do so. They let their children become sanitary or kiln workers to suffer indignity, abuse and a joyless childhood, not because they hate their children but because they are sunk in poverty. They are poor because it suits the state and rich elite to keep them submerged in poverty. They are poor because they are deprived of the measliest of minimum legal wage entitled to them by law. They are poor because the state and the society ensures they are neither registered in the old-age benefits (EOBI) nor in the social security schemes. Thus, we patronise a system that promotes poverty and clips the wings (capacity) of parents to provide a decent protected life to their children.
The environment in the schools, hospitals, communities and homes determines the level of protection a child will receive. Our burgeoning population has created conditions and environments that force millions of children to cramp up in one-room homes, stay out of school, be engaged in child labour or simply live and beg on the streets. Adding 12,000 children each day, Pakistan, whose population was less than Bangladesh by six million in 1971, is now ahead of Bangladesh by 58 million individuals. Such a massive growth in population has restrained Pakistan from meeting any development goals relating to poverty or child protection.
Child rights cannot be ensured on the basis of myths. They can only be provided by managing realities, i.e., an unsustainable fertility rate and a population drenched in poverty. Worsened by an obscene gap between rich and poor, Pakistani children continue to remain vulnerable, unless their parents are paid well enough and the state is able to check a runaway population.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2021.
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