Suffer Not the Little Children

June 2, 2002

By Michael Jessen

If societies are judged by how they treat the most vulnerable in their midst, the world has just received a wakeup call from its children. Through personal testimony and undeniable United Nations statistics, children are telling us we may have created them, but we have failed them. They are crying out about their suffering.

Meeting at the fourth International Children's Conference on the Environment held May 21 to 25 in Victoria BC, nearly 400 children adopted 50 challenges to governments to improve the lives of children in the world. Though often described as innocent and powerless, these children were amazingly perceptive in their prescription for the planet. (The 50 challenges are available on the conference web site Some of their challenges are so simple, one wonders why children even have to ask. For example:

 Promote health care and vaccinations for all children of the world.

 Make sure that everybody is healthy, has clean water and good food, and a place to live.

 Stop child labour in harsh conditions (sweatshops and chemical factories).

 Keep your community clean and children healthy by not using pesticides and/or herbicides.

 Listen to each other, especially children.

 Tax people who waste non-renewable resources.

 Give tax breaks for environmentally friendly products.

 Find alternatives to oil.

 Sign the Kyoto Protocol.

 Have more recycling and composting programs.

Two child delegates at the conference -- Justin Friesen from Nova Scotia and Analiz Vergara from Quito, Ecuador -- were elected by their peers to deliver the challenges to leaders gathering at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 to September 4.

Our children have good reason to ask for a healthier planet since about 5,500 die each day around the world from diseases caused by polluted air, water and food. That's the conclusion of a new study released last month by three United Nations (UN) agencies. Environmental contamination gives rise to a number of diseases, including diarrhea and acute respiratory infections -- two of the leading causes of child mortality -- charges the report, "Children in the New Millennium: Environmental Impact on Health." Ordering information is available at

The 140-page report was produced by UNICEF (, the UN Environment Programme ( and the World Health Organization ( It was released in conjunction with the three day UN General Assembly special session on children held May 8 - 10. The session examined the progress made by the world's nations toward the goals of the World Summit for Children of 1990 where leaders issued an urgent, universal appeal to give every child a better future. News about the special session can be found at and a copy of the outcome document approved by the session can be found at UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also delivered a report "We the Children: Meeting the promises of the World Summit for Children" ( that proves there are many pledges yet to turn into reality. Child friendly versions of many of these documents are available at

Annan's report indicates there was real and important progress in a number of different areas and more was done for children in the last ten years than in any other period in history. It also notes the world has not kept all of the promises made to children in 1990. In fact the statistics will make you want to cry:

 Nearly 11 million children still die each year before their 5th birthday, often from problems that could easily be dealt with.

 150 million children go hungry.

 Almost 120 million children are still not in school -- more than half of them are girls.

 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 years are working -- up to 60 million of them in dangerous conditions.  30 million children are being bought and sold ("trafficked") and exploited in such activities as commercial prostitution or as child slaves.

 600 million children -- 40% of the children in developing countries -- live in extreme poverty and have to survive on $1 a day or less.

 In the year 2000, some 600,000 children under 15 years of age were infected with HIV; half a million children under 15 years of age have died of AIDS and 10.4 million children have lost their mother or both parents as a result of AIDS.

The web site anti-slavery ( states that millions of children are in slavery. Girls as young as six work as maids in the Philippines, children break rocks in Ghana's quarries, young boys are abducted from their homes in South Asia and forced to be car jockeys in the United Arab Emirates and girls are forced into prostitution in the United Kingdom. According to the web site, an exhibit of photographs exposing the plight of Africa's trafficked children is opening in London on Thursday 6 June. The images in Human Traffic, taken by 2002 World Press Award winner Mike Sheil, drew world attention to this growing slave trade. The images reveal the lives of children trafficked in West and Central Africa and the conditions they suffer. Tens of thousands of children as young as five years old, are trafficked for work in the region each year. Forced into brutal conditions, they are denied freedom and education. They are forced into a range of exploitative work as domestics, water sellers, and in some cases as prostitutes.

Ten years after launching a worldwide campaign against child labour, the International Labour Office (ILO) last month issued a landmark global study showing that despite "significant progress" in efforts to abolish child labour, an alarming number of children are trapped in its worst forms. "A Future Without Child Labour" is the ILO's most comprehensive study on the subject. It can be downloaded from

The report found that 246 million children - one in every six children aged 5 to 17 - are involved in child labour. Among its startling new findings, the report also says that one in every eight children in the world - some 179 million children aged 5-17 - is still exposed to the worst forms of child labour which endanger the child's physical, mental or moral well-being. The report also says that of these children:

 About 111 million in hazardous work who are under 15 and should be "immediately withdrawn from this work".

 An additional 59 million youths aged 15-17 should receive urgent and immediate protection from hazards at work, or also be withdrawn from such work.

 Some 8.4 million children are caught in "unconditional" worst forms of child labour including slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities.

Child labour continues to be a global phenomenon - no country or region is immune, the report says. A wide range of crises - including natural disasters, sharp economic downturns, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and armed conflicts - increasingly draws the young into debilitating child labour, including illegal and clandestine forms such as prostitution, drug trafficking, pornography and other illicit activities. The figures in the new report differ from the previously accepted estimate of some 250 million working children aged 5-14 in developing countries - the best estimate possible in 1996. The report notes that the latest methods to gather data provide a more precise picture of the problem of child labour, its distribution among regions and between age groups, and therefore provide figures that are not open to simple comparison with the original estimate.

The report describes child labour at the start of the 21st century as "endlessly varied and infinitely volatile". Drawing on recent survey data, it says an estimated 352 million children aged 5 to 17 are currently engaged in economic activity of some kind. Of these, some 106 million are engaged in types of work acceptable for children who have reached the minimum age for employment (usually 15 years) or in light work such as household chores or work undertaken as part of a child's education. The remaining 246 million children are involved in child labour which the ILO says should be abolished. These forms include:

 Work performed by a child under the minimum age specified for a particular kind of work by national legislation or international standards;

 Hazardous work that jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or the conditions in which it is performed; and,

 "Unconditional" worst forms of child labour as defined in the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, No. 182 available at

Shareholder activism and socially responsible investing are helping to end child labour. A resolution was put forward at the Hudson's Bay Company's annual general meeting on May 23rd urging the board of directors to adhere to the ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and report to shareholders annually on compliance. (See The resolution -- sponsored by four institutional investors -- to put in place a process to end alleged sweatshop abuses in HBC's supply chain was supported by 36.8 percent of the shares voting at the meeting. This represents the largest vote in support of a social resolution before a Canadian corporation and a significant gain over last year's vote on a similar proposal that received approximately 15 percent of the vote. Both Sears and Hudson's Bay have faced allegations that they purchase apparel from sweatshop factories in Lesotho. Classic sweatshop conditions -- child labour, unsafe conditions, sexual harassment -- were reported by NGOs and government investigators. A shareholder initiative, led by Shareholder Association for Research and Education ( challenged the companies to change their practices. SHARE assists pension funds in raising corporate governance and social responsibility issues with the companies in which they invest.

In another positive move, chocolate manufacturers, human rights groups, and the Ivory Coast government signed a pact May 1 to end the abuse of child labour in the chocolate industry. Chocolate manufacturers have been blamed for helping to create market conditions that encourage child slavery and poverty across the African cocoa industry. Children have been working in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast and Ghana for little or no wages. At least 15,000 children from Mali are thought to be in the neighbouring Ivory Coast, producing cocoa for almost half of the world's chocolate. The slave children are taken from poor areas of Mali. Many are the sons and daughters of street sellers, or slum children whose parents sell them for just a few dollars. A report detailing the Ivory Coast's use of child labour in the cocoa industry can be found on The Trade and Environment Database (TED) web site at

The world's children received another setback on June 4th when the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a study revealing that millions of babies go unregistered at birth, denying them an official identity, a recognized name and a nationality. (See Using the most recent data available, the UNICEF report, entitled "Birth Registration - Right from the Start", estimates that 50 million babies were not registered in the year 2000 - 41 per cent of births worldwide. In 19 countries, at least 60 per cent of all children under the age of five were not registered at birth. The right to be registered immediately after birth and to acquire a name and a nationality is recognized under article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As well as being an obstacle to such rights as going to school, UNICEF says the unregistered children's lack of official status makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by child smugglers or being forced into prostitution or other crime.

But even in developed countries there are setbacks to the improvement of children's lives. British Columbia has made some recent legislative changes that undermine the promises made in 1990 to always put the best interests of children first. The Liberal government has introduced legislation that makes it possible for children as young as 12 to go to work. The government has also cut day-care subsidies to parents, cut social assistance payments to single mothers, forced the closure of 57 schools in the province, cut services to street youth, the disabled and foster parents, and broken contracts with the nature interpreters at provincial parks who were teaching children how to look after our planet.

Combining British Columbia's actions and the information from the various UN reports, one has to question whether our society is really doing enough for children. Speaking to members of the Catholic healthcare ministry in 1998, Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize said "To be blind to others' anguish is to be inhuman." Wiesel's words take on a special meaning in view of the latest information about children's lives. "I plead with you. Let us not say they are not our children. In a moral society, all children are our children," Wiesel said.

Protecting children is a measure of our civility, our responsibility, our caring, and a reflection of our love. Children learn our value for life. Children learn our priorities. As child delegates to the UN special session on children wrote ( "We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for us is a world fit for everyone." The statement ends "You call us the future, but we are also the present."

RESOURCES - You can e-mail your thoughts about Premier Gordon Campbell's treatment of BC's children to MLA and other government contact information can be found at Prime Minister Jean Chretien can be e-mailed at or faxed at 613-941-6900. Contact information for cabinet ministers and MPs can be found through Ask what the federal government has done since it ratified the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour on June 6, 2000. Foster Parents Plan has been helping people in developing countries for 65 years; find out the many ways you can help by visiting Several southern African countries -- including Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe -- risk mass starvation in the face of food shortages. The United Nations says at least 10 million people, including many children, are at risk unless the international community acts quickly. World Vision Canada ( has launched a public appeal to help ease the situation. The humanitarian aid group Medecins sans Frontieres ( is helping feed the malnurished in Angola and says a crisis is looming in that country unless the international community provides food.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who advises businesses and communities how to minimize their negative environmental and social impacts and maximize their positive impacts. He can be reached at or by telephone at 1-250-229-5632.

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