The Plight and Promise of the World’s Children

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Kailash Satyarthi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Human Rights Activist), Carolyn Miles (President and CEO of Save the Children), Dr. Jean Zermatten (Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child) and Georgette Mulheir (CEO of LUMOS).  We look at the plight of children worldwide- discussing issues ranging from poverty to exploitation, health to education, climate change to conflict, the media and more.  We also look at the fundamental role of children in human progress, and why they are key to the future of our society.

Of course, you know what a child is, don’t you?…” wrote Wendy Stainton Rogers, “...everyone was a child once upon a time, after all. You almost certainly know children- your neighbours’ children, those of family and friends, perhaps the children you care for or work with, and, possibly, your own children. So ‘childhood’ and ‘children’ are not obscure theoretical ideas for you: they are things you have experienced and, quite probably, play a part in your everyday life. But in some ways this familiarity is a disadvantage. When studying something abstract like physics or music, it’s not hard to realize that there are things about these subjects that you know nothing about and that you need to learn. But first-hand experience of children and childhood can make people think that they know what a child is already.” (Understanding Childhood, An Interdisciplinary Approach)

Childhood is a unique experience shared by every individual on the planet regardless of their ethnicity, culture or any other arbitrary separator we choose to apply. As Wendy states in the above extract, each and every one of us has first-hand experience of being a child, but culture dictates that children themselves are a social-construct, separated into a category of humanity that almost assigns to them their own species. The anthropologist Margaret Mead noted herself that children are, “…pygmies among giants, ignorant among the knowledgeable, wordless among the articulate …And to the adults, children everywhere represent something weak and helpless, in need of protection, supervision, training, models, skills, beliefs, ‘character’.” (Mead, 1955, p. 7)

It is perhaps this artificial separation of children into their own group that allows us to culturally justify the atrocities we commit against them. In our world, over 600 million children live in poverty, and over 11 million children die each year of largely preventable causes (around 21 each minute of every day). Our society uses over 250 million children as labourers (of which more than 125 million work in life-threatening environments). Between 80 and 93% of all our children suffer some form of physical punishment in their homes (a third of whom are violently abused with implements). The flaws in our culture mean that conservatively, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experience some form of forced sexual intercourse or violence each year- with over 1 million being physically sold into the sex trade. To put this in context, if we replace the word “children” with any other label (be it men, women, blacks, Asians or Hindus) and we quickly see the error in our perspectives.

In their 1997 book “Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood“, Allison James and Alan Prout note that, “…the immaturity of children is a biological fact of life but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture. It is these ‘facts of culture’ which may vary and which can be said to make of childhood a social institution. It is in this sense, therefore, that one can talk of the social institution of childhood and of its re- and deconstruction. In this double sense, then, childhood is both constructed and reconstructed both for children and by children…

So what is the true perception of children in our culture? and what is the scale of their plight in the modern world?

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Kailash Satyarthi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Human Rights Activist), Carolyn Miles (President and CEO of Save the Children), Dr. Jean Zermatten (Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child) and Georgette Mulheir (CEO of LUMOS).  We look at the plight of children worldwide- discussing issues ranging from poverty to exploitation, health to education, climate change to conflict, the media and more.  We also look at the fundamental role of children in human progress, and why they are key to the future of our society.

[bios]Kailash Satyarthi has been a tireless advocate of children’s rights for over three decades. He and the grassroot movement founded by him, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), have liberated more than 84,000 children from exploitation and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation. Mr Satyarthi has been the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the Global March Against Child Labour, whose mobilization of unions, civil society and most importantly, children, led to the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour in 1999.  He is also the founding president of the Global Campaign for Education, an exemplar civil society movement working to end the global education crisis and GoodWeave International for raising consumer awareness and positive action in the carpet industry. In 2014, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Carolyn S. Miles is President & Chief Executive Officer for Save the Children, creating lasting change in the lives of more than 70 million children in need in the United States and 120 countries around the world.

Carolyn became the first woman to head Save the Children in September 2011, after joining the organization in 1998 and serving as its Chief Operating Officer for the past seven years. She has travelled to Save the Children’s field operations in nearly 50 countries, and during her tenure as COO Save the Children doubled the number of children it reaches with food, educational, and other programs, and helped grow the organization’s budget – 90 percent of which goes directly to programs serving children – from $140 million to more than $550 million. She has also emphasized the need to use social media and new technology to extend the organization’s reach and fully engage with Save the Children’s employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, donors, partners and others around the world. To this end, she launched her own blog, “Logging Miles,” and is committed to employing social media to extend Save the Children’s reach, building on such successes as its Twitter-based campaign that reached nearly 900 million people to raise awareness of the child hunger crisis in East Africa.

Dr Jean Zermatten is currently the Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Dr Zermatten has been a member of this Committee since 2005. He is a child rights’ lawyer.

He has a Doctor honoris causa from the University of Fribourg. After studying Law at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, he became a clerk, and later an ad hoc judge at the Criminal Court for Juveniles in Fribourg. Afterwards, he was appointed President and Dean of the Juvenile Court of the Canton of Valais where he worked for 25 years. In 2005, he founded the International Institute for the Rights of the Child which he still leads today. He is active in providing guidance and direction for academic programmes about children’s rights and protection. He was the President of the Swiss Society for Criminal Law for Juveniles as well as the President of theInternational Association of Magistrates for Youth and Family (IAMYF).

Georgette Mulheir has worked for more than two decades in 28 countries around the world, leading large-scale programmes to transform (and at times save) the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children. She pioneered a model of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ now followed by many governments, preventing the separation of children from families, returning children from institutions and so-called ‘orphanages’ to families, and shifting finances from harmful institutions to community services that support children in families. She advises officials at the European Commission on using EU funds for reforming children’s services and recently addressed the influential  US Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference in Washington DC on the plight of children in Haiti.[/bios]

Q: What is the state of childhood worldwide?

[Kailash Satyarthi] A large number of children are able to enjoy their childhood to the fullest, receive a good education, and have their health needs looked after.  On the other hand, hundreds of millions of children are denied of their childhood; they are living in abject poverty, and forced to live with conflict and violence.  Children are bought and sold like animals, sometimes at a lower price than animals.  168 million children work as child labourers, more than 200 million children who should be in education are not at school.

We see two different constituencies of children.  One group who enjoys their childhood, and others who are deprived of their fundamental right to be children.

Q: What are the misconceptions around childhood in different parts of the world?

[Georgette Mulheir] We have a lot of misconceptions around childhood…

I frequently hear people making prejudiced remarks such as “well, if they’re so poor why do they have so many children?” People often forget that in a country without a strong state safety-net, the social safety net is provided by the extended family; and so having more children is the way to have a strong extended family.  People believe that if there are more of us then we can look after each other better.  We often see situations where one member of an extended family is able to get an education and he or she is then expected to support the others.

In many cultures, people also have a tendency to suffer in silence.  They don’t respond openly to the tragedies impacting them and their children.  They may not openly grieve when their children die, and I have come across people who believe that this lack of visible emotion says they don’t care; it’s simply not true.

There is a tendency to believe that material wealth and comfort are more important than the basic sense of family and unconditional love.  Disturbingly, you see this manifesting where people think it’s better for a child to be nationally or internationally adopted by a wealthy family – it’s better to do that than have them raised in poverty.  We know however that poor families, with some support, can do a perfectly good job of raising their children!

Q: Why has the world ignored the rights of the world’s most vulnerable children?

[Kailash Satyarthi] Those children who are enslaved, and victims of violence, belong to those sections of society that don’t have a strong political voice or who are taken for granted by politicians and elites.  Most of those children therefore belong to marginalised and excluded sections of our society.

The rights of children are not yet acknowledged as the key driver for human progress and development and hence they are not getting priority in economic, social or political discourse.

Traditionally, children were either treated badly because they were poor and therefore could be exploited- or some people felt that children should be given ‘charity.’  The naïve engaged in charity, and others exploit them economically, physically and sexually.

We have come to consider children as either being exploited or subject to charity; we hardly ever consider them as the equal human beings they are, born with certain inalienable rights.

We must strengthen our notion of children’s rights within our cultures and societies.

Q: What is the role of children in human progress?

[Carolyn Miles] Children are a measure of human progress.

You see that when children aren’t a priority- and child mortality is high, school enrolment is low, literacy is low and so on- society held back. The amount of energy, time and effort that go into providing those basic rights for children is a real measure of a country’s progress, and its level of development.

When you look at countries where there has been great success in moving these indicators, you see the effect it has on society. I was recently in Vietnam- the country is developing so rapidly, every time you visit- you see change accelerating. Child mortality rates have gone down dramatically- they’re now 20:1000 which is in line with MDG4. The economy is having challenges, but is one of the ten fastest growing in the world. In Vietnam, they are changing those basic elements such as literacy, and you see the impact. There are still lots of very poor kids out in rural areas, but there is still a tonne of progress happening.

Looking at disparities is important. We’ve still got a big gap for girls- there are many places where development differences between girls and boys is vast. We know however, that educating a girl really drives a country’s development. For every year a girl stays in school, she delays marriage and having children- which in turn, increases the health of her children. We have to pay a lot more attention to this issue.

Kids themselves can be real drivers of development. In Vietnam, we visited a child-club (which was child run!). These kids were doing disaster-preparedness work! Vietnam is a very disaster-prone country with typhoons, floods, landslides and more. These kids were actually developing disaster-response plans… they were taking these plans back to their families… they were taking these plans and presenting them to community leaders… it was inspiring.

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] We have to understand the new status of the child as being recognised as a person, with status, and rights and so on. A child is the most important person for the future of humanity.

There has been a change in the mentality of parents, communities and society to see children not just as objects, but as beneficiaries of society. We have been given a new child, and it is the responsibility of society that this new-person has to be put in a position where they can develop as people.

Q: To what extent are children recognised and protected by human rights law and other policy mechanisms?

[Carolyn Miles] Save the Children was founded in 1919, and in 1923 Eglantyne Jebb (our founder) wrote the world’s first declaration on children’s rights. That was the precursor to the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child. I am ashamed to say that all but two countries in the world- Somalia and the United States- have endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document states that every child has the right to a healthy life, deserves to survive their childhood, has the right to education and deserves to grow up in a world that cares about their rights.

Around the world, Save the Children spends a lot of time making sure that these rights are recognised and applied. It’s not just about making sure we have this overarching international law, but making sure that local laws and policies uphold and defend those rights. We have been successful in a couple of areas. In education, you find that almost all countries have an education for all policy and law. Getting that to the point where every child goes to school, has a teacher and receives a quality education is a different process- but enshrining these rights into law is a first-step.

Children don’t vote, and don’t have access to traditional methods of having political power. Increasingly people are empowering kids to have a voice, to talk about the issues that matter to them and to talk about their rights. We do an advocacy day here in Washington, and the most impactful people we have going up on that hill with us are kids. The legislators do listen to what they say! Does this translate into policy changes? well… the messages certainly break through and it- at least- gets the issues heard.

Q: How do children end up institutionalised worldwide, and what impact does that have on their life outcomes?

[Georgette Mulheir] For children who are institutionalised, their life outcomes are extremely poor.   There isn’t a great deal of evidence on this in developing countries as people are unwilling to pay for the research! But where we do have the evidence, it’s pretty damning and shows very high levels of unemployment, mental health difficulties, criminal behaviour, involvement in prostitution and suicides.

In Russia, they did a study tracking adults who had grown up in institutions as children.  They found they were 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 500 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers.  The Czech Government, having poured huge amounts of EU funding into improving their orphanages- performed a similar study- and found almost identical outcomes.

Firstly, who is in institutions? Well, it’s the children of poor families.  You also find, consistently, across low, middle and high income countries that there is an over-representation of children from single-parent families who are institutionalised.  That’s not- in any way- to denigrate single parent families, but the research shows that often these are families who are more likely to live in poverty and to face the dilemma needing to work to feed their children but having no-one to look after their kids when they’re working. So they are trapped in a cycle of poverty, which can often lead to the sense of helplessness and isolation that triggers the process by which children become institutionalised.

There is also a very significant over-representation of children with disabilities who are institutionalised, and also children from ethnic minority groups who are facing discrimination and persecution.  Even in countries where they have got rid of big institutions, you see an over-representation of ethnic minority children in care. It’s the groups in the community who are already marginalised and vulnerable.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the start of the institutionalisation system was driven by pure ideology.  Back in the early days of the Russian revolution, many orphanages were set-up with the belief that this would improve care and protect children.  There was a belief that the concept of family was reactionary, holding back women from equality.  This led to a belief that children were the property of the whole population, and could be raised in communes.  The truth, which took them 80 years to discover and accept, was that this was absolutely disastrous for child health and development.

In these same regions, the state felt it had the right to interfere in the lives of families.  In Romania, there is legislation dating back to the 1950s which stated that children were to be raised in the spirit of obedience and love of the ‘party,’ and must be raised in a utilitarian way so as to be useful to the country.  If a child was not raised in this way, the state could intervene and take the child away from those parents.  This resulted in mass-institutionalisation and became habitual.  It became too easy for families to automatically give their children into care if they had problem and became normal if families were divorced.

Disability is important in this context.  We still have many cultures in the world where disabilities are stigmatised and considered shameful.  In the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries- the communist ideal meant that children with disabilities simply didn’t fit into their vision of the perfect, or ‘new’, man or woman and the idea of the child being of use to society.

Ideologies, we can see from this fundamentally determine what people think of as ‘right and wrong’ in a society. In CEE it became almost habitual for families to give up their children.  And we are concerned about habits forming elsewhere.

In many countries across the world, there is a proliferation of orphanages; and our research clearly shows that 80% or more of these children have at least one living parent.

In Haiti, for example, we found that because foreigners love giving some foreigners coming to Haiti, are setting up orphanages simply to access that money.

The conditions in probably two thirds of these orphanages are appalling.  These are children who have no access to clean water, and have very little access to medical care and often are not receiving any education. From what we are told, these are children who are often being beaten, sexually abused, used as forced labour and in some cases children are even dying in the institutions.  All of this to enable unscrupulous people to raise money on the backs of children who should not be in orphanages in the first place.

Here’s what happens.  An orphanage sets-up near a town and then child finders (yes, that’s what they actually call them) are paid (usually on a per-child basis) to aggressively recruit parents in the community with the false promise that by giving up their children, their child will receive better education, nutrition and healthcare.  These are parents who are genuinely poor and can’t afford to give their children the life they would want, and through this vulnerability they often think giving up their child is the right thing to do.   The child finder then gives these parents a false  address for the orphanage so they can’t find their children again. Then they will deliberately malnourish the children to get better images of emaciated kids to raise more money.

The U$100 million sent to Haiti by faith based organisations in the USA would put hundreds of thousands of children through school in Haiti every year.  It would solve 25% of the education problem in Haiti, which currently sees two million children out of school.

Child finders also seek-out poor women who are pregnant, and tell them that they’re from a kind organisation that will provide pre-natal medical care and support to that mother.  As soon as the woman gives birth, they immediately give a bill to the woman which she  inevitably can’t afford to pay and she has to give up the baby instead.

We need to shift this habit of giving up children. People will often come to orphanages for help (not to give-up their children).  The orphanage will say, ‘yes, give us your child and we’ll pay for their medical care… but we can’t help you otherwise’ we had an example of a man whose wife had died during childbirth.  He went to the orphanage with his new-born daughter in a state of shock and grief.  All he wanted was some milk-formula.  The orphanage persuaded him to give up his daughter, and had him sign a relinquishment document – he was illiterate and put his thumb print on the document – which essentially- gave the child up for adoption, without the father knowing.  The child was adopted by a family in the United States who, I am sure, had no idea and were acting in good faith- thinking this was an orphan or abandoned. We now know he is kept informed about his daughter’s progress but he often says: “I just wanted some milk.”

Let me be clear, this is child-trafficking funded inadvertently by well-intended donors who think they’re actually giving to orphanages.

Money is a pull-factor and, even when it’s not trafficking, you find some countries have set their systems up in this way, with the money in institutions and orphanages, so these systems provide help only when children are separated from families, and money is simply not available to prevent separation.

Q: How can we prevent children becoming institutionalised?

[Georgette Mulheir] I’ve worked in 28 countries, and I’ve found that it takes time, investment, good communications and education to make the shift from institutionalising children to community care… but the shift can happen a lot quicker than you might expect. Why? Because it’s natural for families to want to care-for and protect their kids!

Doing the best for our children, giving family for our children, is natural and logical, so why should it be a problem for us to persuade politicians, practitioners and stakeholders? Imagine if you and your wife passed away, would it not be logical that the first step would be that your brother or sister would take care of your kids rather than an institution?

As well as changing mind sets, we need legislation and funding mechanisms to shift money from orphanages to community services.  Take a look at Moldova for example, where we have been operating for over 8 years.  This is Europe’s poorest country, and in 8 years we’ve worked with 8 governments.  In that time, we’ve managed to reduce the number of children in institutions by over 80%, we’ve also been able to aid in the creation of inclusive schools for children for disabilities, foster care services, transport services, community healthcare and many other services… all of which are delivered and funded by the state with the money saved by getting children out of institutions.

In a decade, the government and society in Moldova now see it’s possible to complete the process. In a decade, that’s a massive shift.

We’re currently working in Haiti to deliver something very similar.  The big question there is how you shift funding when it’s private funders and donors and not the state who are delivering services.  It’s early days but we’ve done a lot of demonstration work and research. We’re now in emergency response mode after Hurricane Matthew  but over the next few years we want to show that it will be possible, if complicated, to change what private donors and funders do and create sustainable long-term solutions.

Q: How does the poverty cycle impact children in the developed and developing world?

[Carolyn Miles] Children are the key to breaking the poverty cycle. Making sure that children survive, and ensuring they thrive (so that they are educated, and are able to get meaningful employment to support their families) is key. A generation of children who go through school to the 5th grade, versus a generation of parents who only got to the 2nd grade really does change a country.

Even in developed countries like the United States there are issues. Whether you measure as a percentage or an absolute number, there are more kids living in poverty in the United States now than at any point in the past twenty years. Around 16 million children live in poverty in the United States. This is not just about the overall development of a country.

We see a disparity emerging within countries between people who have access to healthcare, the resources for education and all those basic things required to ensure human development.
We did a study in the United States looking at the differences between a typical middle-class 4 year old, and a 4 year old who grew up in a poor community. We found the child from the poorer background was developmentally behind over 18 months than their middle-class counterpart. That’s huge. If we don’t catch those kids up, this difference will get much wider.

We now operate pre-school and pre-pre-school (home visiting) programmes in poor communities to try and target poor families. These programmes run across the world, from the United States to Nepal. The pre-schools themselves may look a little different, but the concepts are the same- to get kids to a setting where they get used to the idea of school, begin literacy and numeracy, and gain social skills. This really works! In Mozambique for example, kids who go through pre-school programmes are over 24% more likely to enroll in primary school.

The way we are looking at the world is no longer in terms of developed and developing countries. There are poor children everywhere. The United States is one of the most developed countries in the world, but we have 16 million kids who are growing up in poverty. This poverty looks different to what you see in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s still dramatically holding back a large number of children- and hence a large number of adults who will grow up likely to be in that same cycle of poverty.

Q: What are the key challenges to childhood development?

[Carolyn Miles] One of the things we’ve really learned is that starting early is important. Whether you are talking about education, nutrition, health or even the very basic concept of survival.

If you look at the number of kids that die of preventable causes before they reach 5 years old, 99% of them are in the developing world. Since 1990, that rate has been cut in half- from 12 million to 6 million. While we should not have any children dying of preventable causes, we’re saving 6 million kids lives a year- and that’s great progress.

As you drive that number down, you get more and more kids dying at the earlier ages. Around 50% of the 6 million children that die before they reach the age of 5, die in their first month of life. These are babies that are dying…

Why this happening? Mothers aren’t being taken care of while they’re pregnant, and many of the simplest interventions for newborns, such as ensuring babies are kept-warm and breast-fed for the first 6 months, are simply not happening. These are just two of the simple and inexpensive things that could save millions of babies from dying. Getting that education out is a big part of making change.

To be effective, you have to start as early as you can…

Q: What is the involvement of children in armed conflict?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] For a long-time, there was no real consideration of children in armed conflict. This was the first issue looked at by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1991. Previously there were many children involved in conflict, up-to 2 million have died in recent wars. We now have new instruments such as the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict which have dramatically reduced these numbers. I would estimate now that around 300,000 are involved in armed conflict. It’s important to realise that it’s not just children who are used as soldiers- but also children who are used as cooks, messengers and more. You also find that girls are used and abused by soldiers.

Our new concern is about security companies. They are not state-armed groups, and it’s very difficult to tackle them. They often only involve adolescents. The same is true of criminal organisations such as the drug-gangs of Mexico who employ a lot of children in conflict. This is a big concern for the future…

Q: What is the impact of conflict on children’s development?

[Carolyn Miles] A lot of our work in education has focussed on this specific are. We did a big piece of work ensuring that kids in conflict situations (who are living in refugee camps, or may be otherwise displaced by civil war and so on) continue to get education.

A lot of people still think this is a luxury when faced with a situation where children need food and shelter. Yes, I would agree that those things are needed- but you have to consider that many wars can last decades, and that means kids could lose 10-12 years of education. Over a decade long conflict, it is not uncommon for two cycles of kids to lose an education.

Children have the right to an education in all situations, even conflict. It’s really hard to do, but it can- and must- be done.

Q: What is the scale and impact of the trafficking, sale and sexual exploitation of children?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] It’s important to understand the difference between sale and trafficking.

Sale is the transfer of a human being with an exchange of money, but there is no necessity for that to be exploitative. A typical example would be sale through adoption, the sale of organs, or assisted procreation where you pay someone to transfer a baby to you.

Trafficking is the transfer of someone with the purpose of exploitation. Here we have the traditional form where you have girls trafficked for prostitution, or children and adolescents trafficked for forced labour. We also have a concern where people are trafficked through migration. Many parents may pay for their unaccompanied migrant children to go to another country where they are- unfortunately- exploited. This is not new, but the figures are growing.
Pornography is also a concern. There are concerns where children are used in pornography, but also where children are- through technology- able to access pornography. The digital world has also raised the new issue of cyber-grooming where children are solicited to have sexual relations with adults, or even with other children and adolescents.

We have a new optional protocol on this issue which has been ratified by many countries. It is the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography

Q: What is the scale and impact of child labour?

[Kailash Satyarthi] According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 168 million children are working in full-time jobs.  Of those 85 million are victims of the worst-forms of child labour; they are bonded labourers, child soldiers, child prostitutes, work in hazardous occupations or are used for petty crimes.

Child labour is one of the worst violations of human rights, it’s an affirmation that we don’t respect the freedom and dignity of children in our society.  It’s also an utter failure of the constitutional guarantees and laws in our world.

Once children are employed in any area, they work at the cost of adult employment.  In a world where we have 168 million full-time child labourers, we have just over 200 million adults who are jobless.  Studies in India, Philippines, Nigeria and Peru have shown empirically that there is a parallel between child labour and adult unemployment- and those unemployed adults are often the parents of those children.

These children often end up suffering significant mental and physical health problems as a result of their work that severely impact their lives into adulthood.

Child labour is the biggest obstacle to education in our society, and we live in a world where education is the key to human progress, equity and equality in society.  Education is the key to empowerment and poverty alleviation.

Q: How does child labour manifest in different industries?

[Kailash Satyarthi] In our market-economy, consumers have the power.   I also believe that almost every consumer has an element of compassion in herself or himself.  If they are educated and sensitised about the existence of child-labour directly, I hope they use their consumer-power and translate it into pressure and change in corporate behaviour.

I’ve seen this happen first-hand in the carpet consumers campaign.  I launched the Goodweave campaign in Germany in 1990 and later on in other countries in Europe and the United States.  It’s become a landmark campaign, resulting in a significant decline in child labour in South Asian carpet industries from over 1 million to less than 200,000.  Consumers can pressurise the industry- exporters, importers, dealers and manufactures- and this works.

The chocolate industry in the Ivory Coast and Ghana was shown to be employing hundreds of thousands of children as labourers in various forms.  This has resulted in the formation of the International Cocoa Initiative, where I was also a founding member.

In other industries like sporting goods, we’ve seen some progress- but it’s not enough.  We don’t have strong consumer campaigns and movements around industries like garments.

The garment industries are the second largest employers of children after agriculture in most countries that are producing garments, but we have no strong consumer campaigns around this.

Q: What is the plight of children being abused or marginalised in the domestic setting worldwide?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Violence is unfortunately one of the biggest problems we have. It was a taboo for many years, and people did not speak about domestic violence against children by those who were supposed to be protecting them. We did a study on violence in 2006 and now- 6 years later, the situation has not changed. We are more aware, but we do not see any progress.

While many states have criminalised these actions, violence against children is still tolerated by many cultures and countries- and this is a big concern for me. This is not just about physical violence, but also psychological and even sexual.

Q: What are the key health challenges facing children?

[Carolyn Miles] Just getting kids to survive is the key.

Getting the healthcare interventions to where kids and moms are is the biggest challenge. These are mostly rural areas where there are no healthcare systems, but can be urban too. Educating parents about what basic healthcare looks like for their kids is important in this regard too. It’s not about knowing what to do- we know that- it’s about physically getting these interventions to where they are needed.

There are also specific issues, in Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria continues to be a really big challenge- killing millions of kids each year. HIV/AIDS is another massive issue. There are 17 million orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS, about 3.5 million children that are living with AIDS and about 390,000 more are newly infected each and every year.

There is a lot more focus now on the child-issues in HIV/AIDS. Secretary of State Clinton just announced a “Blueprint for an AIDS free generation” – aiming to see a generation of kids who are not infected at all, and a generation who- if they are infected with HIV- do not develop AIDS as a result. This means the provision treatment, prevention and education and while it is certainly aspirational to aim for zero-infections, it shows that the issue is now gaining attention.

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Health is a major problem. We have a lot of children dying unnecessarily every day, every minute, ever second. Water and sanitation are behind a lot of these health problems, and this is a major challenge for the world. We have a lot of good practices in the elimination of disease through immunisation programmes. In many cases these diseases have very simple solutions, but they remain major causes of death- and that is unacceptable.

Q: Are there cultural practices which can impact the rights and situation of children?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] The main form is female genital mutilation, but there are others such as child-marriage and ‘temporary marriage’ where the tradition of marriage is used as a pseudo-excuse for prostitution.

If we use the example of female genital mutilation, we see that there is a strong-awareness of these issues but it is very difficult to eradicate. You can’t just legislate and prohibit against these acts as they have a strong cultural basis, and the culture partaking in these acts believe they are doing so in the best interests of the child. We try to convince community leaders- be they religious or otherwise- to realise that their practices are harmful towards children. This is a long-fight, and it’s very slow.

There is a lot of ignorance towards early-marriage. Often early-marriages take place due to poverty, as it may be the family’s only chance for an income. They do this with a lot of ignorance toward the consequences.

Q: What are your concerns regarding children who are disabled or have mental-health issues?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first instrument to also include disability as a criteria for discrimination. With this and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities we have made a lot of progress.
Children with disabilities are often excluded, institutionalised, deprived of education, deprived of healthcare and more. We have to work towards their inclusion, particularly in education at the earliest stages. There may be certain cases where institutionalisation is necessary, but to be frank- it is not the case in most situations.

We have a big discrepancy between developed and developing world in this regard. I have just returned from Africa, and find the situation there- in the majority if countries- are such that there are no programmes or vision for disabled children.

In health in general we have an important discrepancy between the western world and rest of the planet!

Q: What are the challenges facing orphans and children without guardians?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] There are different causes for children becoming orphans. You have orphans from disaster (such as Haiti and the Philippines), and you also have orphans through health problems such as HIV/AIDS, and even conflict. It is difficult to quantify the exact numbers, and there is no clear international definition of ‘what’ constitutes a child being an orphan.

We know that mechanisms exist to take care of these children. Domestic and international adoption is the primary way to solve this problem. We do however, need very strong regulation. In Haiti for example, there have been many problems with international and illegal adoption. Even in France, there has recently been a trial where an association stole 103 children from Chad for ‘adoption‘! In these cases, institutionalisation of adoption is the last solution, but the aim is for family care. Solutions must be determined with each individual child in mind- each child’s needs are different.

There are also a high number of children affected by migration. Many children are left-behind because their parents migrate. These children are not technically ‘orphans’ but are denied family because their families have left.

Q: How are children affected by phenomena such as climate change, natural disasters and economic crises?

[Carolyn Miles] Unfortunately it is often kids that die in natural disasters. During my recent visit to Vietnam there were flash-floods, and in one community there were 5 people drowned, 4 of them were children – they were simply not strong enough to survive. Incidents like this happen on a regular basis all along the coast and into the Mekong delta, almost certainly as a result of climate change.

As even the recent hurricane in the United States illustrated, it’s almost always the poorest families- who can least afford to lose things- who are most affected by natural disasters. If you look at New York and where people lived whose homes got washed away, and who died? it was almost completely poor communities. It was akin to what you see in places like Bangladesh where the places most susceptible to cyclones are not where people would choose to live if they had another option….

The economic crisis has also pushed more families into a state where children become vulnerable. In some countries economic crisis and population growth have combined, meaning less land is available and people are pushed into more marginal places.

Alongside responding to emergencies, we’re doing a lot of work on resiliency and disaster risk-reduction, getting communities prepared for disasters with adequate early warning, good evacuation plans, government support for the movement of people in emergency situations and so on.

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Unfortunately we have a lot of causes of concern for the plight of children.

Climate change has a direct impact on children. It impacts their health, and can cause migration due to hunger and areas becoming unsuitable for habitation. There are also indirect impacts. Migration and the need to leave one’s country can lead to extreme poverty, hunger, and means that children may not have access to education, health services and more.
Natural disasters and climate change are highly linked. Every day we have the manifestation of the effects of climate change, and its provocation of natural disasters- such as what we have seen recently in the Philippines. There are many interesting high level conferences such as Rio and Doha, but the impression I get is that the planet is not taking climate change, and what it means for our children, very seriously.

The economic crisis has also created a big problem. The first few years of the millennium were not too bad, but since 2007 many budgets traditionally aimed at children- nutrition, education, security and so on- have been cut. In the short term this may not be very visible, but in the long term it will cost a lot.

Q: What are the realities of how gender-equality impacts childhood development?

[Carolyn Miles] It’s still a really big issue in the developing world. A lot of work has been done in understanding the disparities between boys and girls, but there’s still a huge gap.
There is a human-rights issue here, and one surrounding discrimination. Families may feel that if they only have a certain amount to invest in their children, they should invest in the boys. We are trying to change this by working with families to help them understand that that educated girls can go out and support whole families like boys can.

This is part of breaking the cycle of poverty. When you empower a girl by helping her to survive and get an education, her family is so much more likely to be in a better place than where they grew up…. it can really change things for the next generation.

Many studies have been done to show that when mothers are economically empowered, they invest in their children… providing better shelter, nutrition, education and so on.

Q: What is the role of parents in children’s development?

[Carolyn Miles] This is critically important. Our focus is more on mothers than fathers- not because we don’t like fathers- but because it’s often that the mothers stay with children, while fathers go off working.

A lot of this is about changing cultural practices and norms. We also work with mother in-laws who are really important in these things…

Let me give you one example…. In Nepal, traditions are usually held by the mother in-law as the woman usually goes to live with her husband’s family. The whole birthing practice is driven by the mother in-law. The tradition in Nepal is that birth is ‘dirty’ and should therefore take place in the dirtiest place in the home, often where animals are kept. There was a whole tradition were women were told to go out by themselves and have their babies in a barn…. Birthing attendants were told to put the baby off to the side, deal with the mother, and then clean the baby. We underwent a whole process providing things like plastic sheeting for mothers to lie on… providing stoves for hot water… providing training for traditional birth attendants… and even training traditional birth attendants to wash the baby, keep them warm, and fundamentally advise them to not have a baby in a barn! The key to all these interventions was to work with the mother in-law, they were the key decision maker in how these situations would unfold. We engaged these mother in-laws to be champions for their grandchildren, and changed a lot of these practices. That’s just one example of how parents and even grandparents can be key in the story of children’s development.

Q: To what extent do you think children require protection from, and in- the media?

[Dr. Jean Zermatten] Children need protection from the media where the media portray children and adolescents in a negative light. For example the media may say, “all adolescents are violent…“, “all adolescents are drug addicts…“, “all adolescents are not working and just being lazy…” and so on. These are not reflecting the reality of adolescence and of childhood in general. Also, there needs to be protection for children against the media whereby the media may publish their names (in context for example, of children who have been the victim of rape and crime). Children must also be protected from the ‘media‘ in a broad sense. The use of new technology to attract children for sexual and other dishonest purposes is growing, and we must come up with mechanisms to protect them.

There are also many advantages from media-technology whereby new-media technologies can really empower children’s education! This is the first time in history where children are the professors of technology versus their parents. I need a child to help me solve my computer problems!

The media can also promote a better image of children. They can communicate the rights of the child, and be agents for their empowerment. This may sound utopian, but this is what we aim for.

Q: How can we get to a world where we have fair and equitable access to education?

[Kailash Satyarthi] Campaigning for children’s educational rights is one of our biggest fights.

We have been successful at getting education included into the millennium development goals; the target was to achieve education for all, but now the goal is to deliver equitable, quality and inclusive education and life-long learning.

The international community has arrived at this conclusion on the basis of our experiences as a civil-society organisation.  We’ve seen first-hand the importance of an equitable, quality and inclusive education in children’s outcomes.

Unfortunately, neither the international community, the industrialised world nor many nations are prioritising education in their ODA (development) spending.  The situation is that less than 4% of ODA goes to education.  In most countries, less than 2% of their GDP is earmarked for education, and when it comes to humanitarian aid? Less than 2% goes to education in worldwide humanitarian assistance.

We need a mass movement in civil society for equitable education.  The quality of education has been picked up by the World Bank and others because that guarantees them a workforce with the right skills, but quality cannot be achieved at a large scale until we make education inclusive and equitable.

Q: How can philanthropists do the best for children? 

[Georgette Mulheir] We do a lot of influencing of donors, we started with the European Union and we made a big change there.  We’re currently doing a lot of mostly off-radar work with the Evangelical Christian Community in the United States, which is getting a lot of traction.

We combine awareness-raising communication and advocacy with primary research to show people what’s being done with their money, given with the best of intentions, and why it’s not the best outcome for those children – and also (importantly) what’s possible and can be done, even in countries like Haiti.  With a little bit of support kids can go back to families and survive and thrive in their community-.

We have been working with a number of faith based organisations to develop a toolkit and guidance on making the transition from institutional to community based services.  We’re going to be working with faith based orphanages in Haiti, funded by donors, that are open minded enough to know they’re not doing the right thing. They want to change to do the best for those children but don’t know how to do it differently.

It’s very important to say we do not want people to stop funding orphanages overnight, that would be hugely damaging- our aim is to empower donors and service delivery partners to make this transition from institutions to community services smoothly, sustainably, and with the right support.

We know that most kids are in institutions and orphanages because they weren’t able to receive an education or healthcare in the community, or simply because the family weren’t able to support the child the way they wanted to.  There is a small number of kids who genuinely don’t have families, have families we cannot trace, or who have families that are so abusive that it simply isn’t appropriate for them to be there.  For them we will actively work to build capacity in foster care and adoption.

The staff who currently work in orphanages would- in our model- be retrained to provide community support, as care workers, community health workers, foster carers and more.  There is a huge pool of talent there- and we want to use those orphanage budgets to provide care through the community.  It’s about looking at an orphanage not as a single institution, but rather- as a set of resources that can be taken out of the building and into the community – rather than needing to bring the children to the facility.

Q: How can children be a part of the solution to institutionalisation?

[Georgette Mulheir] at LUMOS, we have a wonderful child participation programme which we believe every organisation working with young people should have.

Before we started our programme, we planned it out really carefully.  A lot of youth-participation programmes in reality don’t allow for much participation- it can be tokenistic and often can put words into children’s mouths, writing their speeches for them!  It’s very often the children of the elite, and the children of wealthy politicians who form these focus groups too; and while that’s great, and we fully encourage every child to have a voice, the question is more around how we involve and engage those marginalised kids, and those with disabilities, in developing solutions for them and their communities.

We decided to turn child-participation on its head and started with children we thought were the most marginalised and hence had the least voice.  One of the challenges is this… how do you start to ask the opinion of someone who has never been asked to give an opinion in their lives? You have to start at a very simple place.  For some of the kids and young people we work with – we start with simple choices around participation in activities, choices around food, and things which didn’t have stress attached.  By starting with simple questions, we helped these kids realise that choice was normal.

It’s really important too that we translate things like the law, rights and so on into easy-to-read documents so children can read them in their own time, make sense of them and make decisions and become advocates.

We now have young people speaking out at UN conferences who are writing their own speeches, not us.  They are deciding how they want to communicate, not us… they are deciding what they want to say, not us… These are children who started unable to communicate an opinion, who are now part of the change impacting their futures.

Q: How can we raise our voices and fight for the rights of children? 

[Kailash Satyarthi] I have more trust in youth and children than in anyone else.

I don’t want to find the solutions for children’s problems in a conventional manner through preaching, teaching and learning.

I want to engage young people as champions and leaders for the cause of other children.  That’s the most important challenge I’m taking up in coming years, and I’m going to launch the largest campaign humanity has ever seen to do this.  I call it 100 million for 100 million- 100 million plus children are victims of violence; not just slavery, trafficking and prostitution, but also denial of education ill-health and malnutrition.  100 million plus children who are in better situations are full of energy and enthusiasm, but have lost their idealism.  They have a desire and hunger to prove themselves and do something good for society, and I want to engage those 100 million plus young people to become spokespeople, champions and change-makers for the 100 million that have been missed out.

If young people take the driving seat of these campaigns, nobody will be left out.

Q: What should childhood be like?

 [Kailash Satyarthi] Every child should free to be a child.  Every child should be free to cry and laugh.  Every child should be free to learn and grow.  Every child should be free to play and enjoy his or her childhood.

Freedom is the key to childhood, and we must protect that.

Childhood is not simply an age segment of life, it’s a value that has to be preserved and protected by everyone.

Childhood means simplicity, forgiveness, a quest for learning, working-together and transparency.  It is a precious gift from God, and each of us must keep that close to our hearts for our whole lives.

We have done so many good things for our children, but the worst thing we’ve done is to give them a divisive identity that says they are Hindu, Muslim or Christian.  We have taught them they are American, Indian or African.  Children have never created borders, religions, faiths or caste systems.  Children have not been responsible for wars and divisions in society- we did that… and now we’re imposing on our children, from their birth, a divisive image of who they are.

We need to learn from children, and learn simplicity, forgiveness and the beauty of life.

[Georgette Mulheir] The most important ingredient in childhood is love.

People often shy away from using the word ‘love’ as they don’t want to sound too schmaltzy perhaps; but it matters a lot.  We can boil childhood down to being about health, education, stability, consistency, boundaries, participation and all those important things- but without that genuine, unconditional love? The rest of it doesn’t work properly.

When you work with children who have been separated from their families and live in institutions, you see how severely damaging it is to take a child away from a loving family environment.

Imagine you’re in South Sudan, you’re being attacked- your village is under fire.  What do you do? You pick your children up and run.  What happens if you’ve got an orphanage in that village? Nobody picks those children up and runs… they’re left behind.

Even in the direst circumstances, parents have this love for their children that means they will find a way to fight for them and make things work, protecting them.  With very few exceptions, nobody will ever give a child the unconditional love a parent will.  Of course there are also parents who should never be allowed near their children, but this is a very, very small number.

Childhood should be about a consistent, loving, family environment and access to the basics of healthcare, education, housing and nutrition.  If you look after these basics, pretty much any child can do anything.


Treating someone like a child is prima facie wrong, unless, of course, the person in question really is a child.” wrote Tamar Schapiro, adding “…by ‘treating someone like a child’ I mean interacting with her on the basis of more paternalistic standards than those which apply to adult-adult relations. To treat someone like a child is, roughly, to treat her as if her choices are not quite her own to make.” (What is a Child? 1999). Schapiro continues by raising the question, “…what features of a person’s condition can in principle justify us in treating a person this way?…
The answer as we have seen, lies deeply rooted within our culture. Shapiro notes that, “…the idea that children have a special status, one which is different from that of adults, is evident in our everyday attitudes. Our basic concept of a child is that of a person who in some fundamental way is not yet developed, but who is in the process of developing. It is in virtue of children’s undeveloped condition that we feel we have special obligations to them, obligations which are of a more paternalistic nature than are our obligations to other adults. These special obligations to children include duties to protect, nurture, discipline, and educate them. They are paternalistic in nature because we feel bound to fulfill them regardless of whether the children in question consent to be protected, nurtured, disciplined, and educated. Indeed, we think of children as people who have to be raised, whether they like it or not. A related intuition is that the words and deeds of children have a different status or significance than the words and deeds of adults. This intuition manifests itself in two ways. First, we tend to think that, in general, children are not to have the same say in matters which affect them as adults do. The consent or dissent of a child does not have the same authority and moral significance as the consent or dissent of an adult. I am not suggesting here that we are completely indifferent to children’s opinions about what ought and ought not to be done to and for them. The point is merely that, in general, we do not feel bound by children’s’ expressions of their wills in the same way that we feel bound by adults’ expression of theirs….

It is clear that this same ‘paternalistic‘ attitude often manifests itself not just in a sense of obligation, but in the perception of ownership. In the ‘best interests of children‘, society inadvertently removes their agency and in doing so alienates their humanity.
In “The Sociology of Childhood“, William Corsaro argues that, “Our children are our future. How often we hear this obvious but true proverb. Cultures that invest in their children; that shelter, nourish and challenge their young; and that hold high expectations for their future generations will survive and flourish. All children live their childhoods only once. We adults have had our childhoods; for some they were happy and enriching, and for others, unfortunately, sad and oppressive. We cannot have them back to live another way, nor can we live the lives of our children. All too often, individuals and societies try to justify their actions in terms of their effects on children’s futures as adults. This focus on the future, on what our children will become, can often blind us to how we treat and care for our children in the present. Enriching the lives of all our children will produce better adults and will enable our children to participate actively and fully in their own childhoods and contribute to the quality of our adult lives. Cultures that appreciate and celebrate their children for who they are as well as for who they will become are the cultures that will lead us most successfully as we proceed further into this new century.

Children are the physical form by which society re-incarnates itself, and avoids the certain mortality with which we are born. Without them, humanity will end… without them, the billions of souls who have fought, discovered, created and explored will have done so in waste. Each of the more than 400,000 children born every day has the innate capacity to be brilliant. There is no way for us to know which of these children will become the next great artists, world-leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and freedom fighters- but we can say with certainty that some of them will, and that collectively they will- in almost every respect- be more than we could every be.

…Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you….” – Khalil Gibran

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.