NATIONAL LEADERS ARE MEETING TO WAGE WAR ON THE DESPAIR AND DEATH OF THE WORLD’S YOUNG
A CRY FOR CHILDREN
NATIONAL LEADERS ARE MEETING TO WAGE WAR ON THE DESPAIR AND DEATH OF THE WORLD’S YOUNG
In the time that it takes to read this article, more than 400 children in deserts, jungles and rotting urban slums around the world will die. Most will succumb to illnesses such as measles and pneumonia, which doctors and cheap medicine, had they been available, could easily have prevented or treated. The rest will simply starve to death. But even death on that monstrous scale—more than 250,000 a week and 14 million a year—does not fully define the appalling, interminable nightmare into which millions of children in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America have been locked for decades. Every day, millions who cling to life are so weak from hunger that they cannot stand. Millions of others are beaten, sexually abused, abandoned, sold into slave labor or forced by poverty into prostitution. For years, private and United Nations agencies have begged governments to mount a global rescue program, and now, one may at last be taking shape. Next weekend, 78
national leaders are expected to meet in New York City at the World Summit for Children to design a strategy for a war on death and despair. Said Canadian UN ambassador Yves Fortier: “Children must be given first call on the world’s resources.”
The purpose of the two-day summit, the
largest gathering of monarchs, presidents and prime ministers in history, is to agree on ways of achieving dramatic, unprecedented advances against the hazards that will otherwise kill 140 million children by the end of the century. Among the objectives: major reductions in infant mortality, malnutrition and the incidence of diseases that include measles, polio and tetanus, and universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and basic education. The co-chairmen of the summit, whose highlevel delegates will include President George Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, are Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mali President Moussa Traoré, a replacement for former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was deposed in August. Canada, Mali, Sweden, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan originally proposed the summit.
Political and social service groups around the world have applauded the notion of the
conference. Still, only extraordinary dedication among the delegates will make the meetings, which begin on Saturday, more than a forum for exchanging platitudes and delivering speeches. Said Fortier: “Let’s be frank. Everybody wants to show that they love children, but children are not always at the forefront of politicians’ agendas. This gathering makes it incumbent on them to deliver on their promises.”
But the statistical story of children’s suffering will provide the conference with a strong motive to succeed. In a 102-page report entitled “The State of the World’s Children 1990,” the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
warned that “hopelessness and the denial of opportunity erodes self-respect and sows the seeds of almost insoluble social problems for future generations.” The report added that “entrenched injustices and the parading of unattainable wealth before the eyes of poverty provoke an instability and violence which often takes on a life of its own.”
But neither statistical analyses nor political declarations can truly convey the misery and pain that millions of children endure daily. In order to communicate the human dimensions of the tragedy,
Maclean’s asked correspondents around the world to interview children and chronicle their suffering. The magazine then prepared four profiles of children who, last week at least, were still alive:
One day about three months ago, in the eastern Indian village of Debra, Chedi Kumar
Paswan asked his father where he could find work and help support his two brothers and three sisters. His father, like his mother, a farm laborer, replied that Chedi should look for a job in the city because the village offered little opportunity. So Chedi said goodbye to his family and travelled 1,200 km by train to New Delhi with an uncle, a handcart puller, who vanished after getting his nephew a job washing dishes in a shantytown hotel for the equivalent of $14 a month. After a few weeks, a painful skin rash appeared on Chedi’s hands, and the hotel owner fired him without paying his wages.
Chedi Paswan, only eight years old, was
penniless, dejected and unemployed.
He began walking aimlessly through the sunbaked, noisy streets of the Indian capital and, after covering about eight kilometres, reached a roadside restaurant in the heart of the city where he stopped and asked for a glass of water. Recalled restaurant owner Mahavir Singh: “He looked pretty miserable, and I gave him a job. He is not the first little boy to come here starving.”
Nor will he be the last. The Operations Research Group, a privately run Indian social welfare agency, estimates that the country’s labor force includes 44 million children, even though the nation’s constitution prohibits their exg ploitation. While most, im= prisoned by poverty, work I with their parents in India’s g thousands of villages, more g and more, like Chedi, are mi8 grating to the cities. UNICEF 5 reported recently that in
New Delhi alone, more than 450,000 children work 12-hour days in restaurants, shops and garages for wages of 270 rupees ($17) or less a month.
In other parts of India, child workers are even worse off. In the town of Sivakasi, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the match and fireworks industry employs 50,000 children between 5 and 15 who spend their days in poorly lit sheds handling dangerous chemicals. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, 30,000 children breathe poisonous stone dust while working in the quarries of Mandasor.
By comparison, Chedi Paswan is doing well. He works from 6 a.m. to midnight setting tables, removing dirty dishes and eating the lunch and dinner leftovers. He sleeps on a bench and, because the restaurant is open to the street, he is occasionally soaked when the wind blows monsoon rains inside. Mahavir pays him 160 rupees ($10) a month, and he spent his first wages on candy “because I don’t have any place to keep the money safely.” Added Chedi: “The good thing about this job is that I don’t have to wash dishes.” A Maclean ’s correspondent asked the boy if he was ever homesick. He considered the question and shook his head. Then he added, “But I dreamed one night that my parents and my brothers and sisters were here and living in the restaurant.”
In the heavily polluted air of Mexico City, a straggly tree fought for life on a traffic island at an eight-lane downtown intersection. Sitting on the ground beneath the tree, nine-yearold Miguel Jiminez carefully applied red, white, blue and black paint to his face to create the appearance of a clown. He painted on an extravagant grin and added three colored dots under each eye to denote tears. The final touch was a blue-andyellow wig that looked like a mop. Then, hitching up his dirty cotton pyjama, Miguel went to work.
Each time a red light stopped the traffic, the boy dashed onto the crosswalk and frantically began to juggle small oranges and rubber balls. Before the light turned green, he finished his performance and went quickly from car to car with his hand out, canvassing his captive audience. Many drivers either ignored him or shook their heads. But some gave him a few coins, and by late afternoon, when the sun bathed him in sweat and the paint clogged his pores, he had collected about 3,000 pesos ($1.25), enough for a meal.
Miguel is one of the Mexican capital’s 2.5 million street children, who, from early in the morning until dusk, fight to survive by begging, juggling, washing windshields or selling coat hangers, gum, cheap auto accessories and toys to motorists and passers-by. Social service agencies estimate that two million of the children also live in the streets, sleeping in doorways, piles of garbage, bus stations and aban-
doned buildings wrecked in the 1985 earthquake that killed at least 4,200 people. Younger children are regularly robbed, beaten and sometimes sexually abused by the older ones and even by their own parents.
Hundreds of the street children are malnourished and sick. Dolores Estrada, executive director of Casa Alianza, the Mexican branch of the U.S.-based Covenant House, said that some of the 100 fiveto 16-year-olds taking refuge at any one time in her agency’s two shelters are addicted to alcohol and the fumes of paint thinner. Others have AIDS, bronchitis, intestinal parasites, lice and skin diseases such as mange. Many are prostitutes. Estrada said that the problems of the street children “are a
reflection of all Mexico’s problems”—a depressed economy, inadequate family planning among the poor, prostitution and alcoholism.
Still, Miguel Jiminez is better off than most of the children. Earlier this year, he was befriended by David Cesaya, a 19-year-old juggler who found him wandering the streets of Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican town on the U.S. border. Cesaya took Miguel back to Mexico City, where the boy now lives with the Cesaya family—David, his mother and three brothers—in a one-room apartment in the slum community of Ciudad Nezahualcóytl, named for an Aztec king. Nearly every day, David Cesaya and Miguel pay the equivalent of 20 cents each for the bus and subway ride into the city where, accompanied by two or three friends, they find a promising intersection. Then, once again, they paint their faces to look like clowns and juggle until the sun makes shadows on the street.
The building is near the bank of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. It is called, in transla-
tion, the Home for the Protection of Children’s Rights. For the 28 children who live there, protection was late in coming. There are twoand three-year-olds who have been raped and beaten. There are eightand 10-year-olds who were held prisoner in back-street factories and forced to work 16 hours a day making toys, candy and flower garlands. There are two girls, one 13, the other 14, who once belonged to Thailand’s legion of 800,000 child prostitutes.
Known only as Suntaree, one girl is 14 and skinny, with large dark eyes. She recalled that, one day two years ago, when she was only 12 and at home doing schoolwork, her mother burst into the room and said: “Please come with me. I need your company.” Suntaree was reluctant to leave her books, because she was a
bright student and eager to do well, but she obeyed her mother, who took her to Bangkok’s West Inn motel. Another woman was waiting, and the two of them shoved Suntaree into a room where a man of about 40 said that he had paid the mother for the girl’s sexual favors.
Suntaree struggled and screamed so loudly that the man ran away. On the way home, the mother knocked her sobbing daughter down, kicked her repeatedly and beat her with a thick stick. “You are no good to me, you are a bad daughter, you do not do what I tell you,” the woman shouted.
The cuts and bruises healed, and there were other men in other hotels and Suntaree did what they wanted because, she nows says, she was afraid her mother would kill her. Once, when she resisted a man, her mother again pummelled her and threw her a piece of electric cord. “Here, strangle yourself with this,” said her mother. “You are no more use to me.”
Suntaree eventually told the story to her teacher, who had asked why she cried so much. The teacher told the police. The mother was
convicted of forcing her daughter into prostitution and sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment.
Sometimes, Suntaree and her brother and sister visit their mother in prison. “I feel nothing and I know that is bad,” says Suntaree. “I just want to start my life over again.” She says that when she finishes school, she would like to get a job in a bank. She added, “I think I’ll feel safe in a bank.”
In Ana’s mind are dark images that have made both life and death savage and meaningless.
Ana is 10 years old. A Maclean’s correspondent found her watching other children playing ball on a sandy beach opposite an orphanage in the Mozambican city of Beira. Ana lived at the orphanage for more than a year, until a sister found her two months ago and took her home—but she never played ball. Polio has crippled one of her legs and withered an arm, which now dangles uselessly at her side.
She hobbled towards the shade of a tree and sat, awkwardly arranging her crippled leg with her good arm. Ana looked at the children in the distance and said: “I’m waiting for my sister to collect me. I don’t understand why nobody comes. I feel all alone.” Early last year, Mozambique National Resistance rebels seized Ana and her parents in their village near the town of Inhaminga. The rebels have been fighting the government since the southeast African nation gained independence from Portugal 15 years ago. The civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and orphaned 200,000 children, leaving them haunted by famine. Many children have been forced to watch rebels hack their parents to death.
Ana and her mother and father were force-marched for days until they came to a rebel encampment. The girl spent three months at the camp. “They gave us no food, so we had to eat berries and sleep in the fields,” she said. “I saw them beat people to death but I don’t know why.” Her parents died, and one day Ana ran away. A Red Cross worker found her in the bush and took her to the orphanage.
Ana likes to sing in the Sena dialect. The words of one of her favorite songs are “In this world, nothing has any meaning, so what can I say, what can I do?”
The world leaders who come together on the weekend at UN headquarters in New York may have answers to the questions in Ana’s song. But real solutions will emerge only if they have the political will to save millions of children from disease and early graves.
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