The World’s Children in Crisis: What Can We Do?
Director, International Center for Everybody’s Child, and Professor and Doctoral Director of Literacy Studies
At the International Center for Everybody’s Child (ICEC) at Hofstra University, we begin with the premise that everybody’s child is our child. We then ask: “If we include consideration for the health and well-being of everybody’s child in our response to events that are taking place, how would this affect our present and future actions?”
The question engages us in deep contemplation of the ways in which we live in the world and take care of our children. It necessitates the recognition of our common humanity. We are a species first – biologically, physiologically, intellectually and emotionally – before we are separated by gender, ethnicity, race, religion, politics or national identity. We share human attributes and abilities. We think. We talk. We feel, imagine and create. We have the capacity for empathy and compassion – but also for hate. The question also necessitates our uneasy acknowledgment that, individually and collectively, human beings are the most violent species on the planet. This is the harsh reality of our “common inhumanity” – which every year includes the exploitation and death of millions of children.
Children are especially vulnerable during this time of global economic crisis and catastrophic events caused by global warming. Before the financial crisis, the World Bank (2009) estimates that between 130 and 155 million people had fallen into extreme poverty because of the food and fuel crisis. Forty-four million children – who are severely malnourished and at risk of starvation – are included in these estimates. The World Bank emphasizes the need for the international community to look beyond financial rescue to the human side of the crisis. Two hundred thousand to 400,000 more babies could die each year between now and 2015, and the child mortality rates are set to soar as an estimated 100 million more people are impoverished.
But children are threatened by more than the impact of the world economic crisis on global poverty or the devastating effects of climate change. Their future health and well-being, their very survival, is also threatened by the violence and abuse that they experience at the hands of human beings. Nobel laureate Eric Chivan and Aaron Bernstein (2008) write of the species endangerment and ecosystem disruption caused by wars and armed conflicts. Here the focus is on child endangerment. Chivan and Bernstein estimate that “160 wars have been fought in the past 60 years, the majority of them regional conflicts among various political, religious, tribal, or ethnic factions.” They write of the “large displacements of human populations” with “refugees, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands” (p. 61). The bottom line is that the confluence of the global economic crisis and severe climate change is expected to result in an increase in armed conflict in the fight for diminishing resources, including water, food and land. Given that most casualties of war are children, there is need for grave concern.
In the 20th century, more than 100 million children were killed in wars or other social catastrophes, and the 21st century portends to be a time of unimaginable and unspeakable humanitarian crises, which are already proving deadly for children. Children die of starvation and treatable diseases every minute and every second of every day. In rich nations as well as poor, child abuse is at epidemic levels and threatens the emotional health, physical well-being, and intellectual development of quite literally hundreds of millions of children. The mistreatment of children is a worldwide pandemic. In America alone, there are more than 3 million documented cases of children who are coping with complex developmental trauma. Information supplied by USA International Development (USAIDE) and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) clearly shows that the incidence of worldwide disasters is increasing, and the proportion of declared disasters that are complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs) is disproportionately increasing (Mandalakas, 2001, p. 97).
There is an urgent global need for the protection of children from violence, exploitation and abuse. UNICEF (2006) states:
Children without the guidance and protection of their primary caregivers are often more vulnerable and at risk of becoming victims of violence, exploitation, trafficking, discrimination or other abuses. In conflict situations, involuntary separation from both family and community protection, sometimes across national borders, greatly increases the child’s risk of exposure to violence, physical abuse, exploitation and even death. Surviving children face malnutrition, illness, physical and psychosocial trauma, and impaired cognitive and emotional development. Unaccompanied girls are at especially high risk of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, unaccompanied boys are at high risk of forced or “voluntary” participation in violence and armed conflict.
There has been no significant improvement in the three years since this report was published. To the contrary, there is compelling evidence that as more and more children are living in extreme poverty, there has been a dramatic increase in violence against children. Children are bought and sold, made into sex slaves, turned into child soldiers, and left to die when we have medicine to save them. In regions of armed conflict, there is increasing acceptance that children will be killed. “Sometimes,” Slavoj Zizek (2008) writes, “doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (p. 183).
Peter Singer (2009), writing in The Chronicle Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, takes to task universities for their reluctance to address issues of global poverty. He states, “The issue should be prominent in anthropology, cultural studies, economics, ethics and sociology. In political-science courses, we should ask why we pay so little attention to people living in poverty outside our borders” (p. B6). Singer includes sociology, engineering, medicine, law and education in his list. In the past few years, Hofstra has taken up the challenge to address global poverty and the world’s children in crisis through faculty and student participation in the Center for Civic Engagement and through the work of the International Center for Everybody’s Child.
Given the worldwide life-threatening deterioration of the circumstances in which children are expected to live their lives, it could be argued that the greatest advancement human beings could make in the 21st century is to ensure the survival of their children. Such an effort would necessitate the dissolution of racial and ethnic divides, the crossing of national and cultural borders, and the mending of religious and political rifts. Scientists in every field, discipline, and paradigm would need to work together with physicians, politicians, business leaders and philanthropists – unlikely, perhaps, but ICEC takes the stance that if we can imagine the possibilities of such collaborations, then our efforts will be worthwhile. This philosophical belief owes much to readings of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind, Veena Das’ Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good, Eileen Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Simone Weil’s Oppression and Liberty and Gravity and Grace.
Essential to the mission of ICEC is the facilitation of focused conversations and intense discussions at conferences, forums, seminars and workshops. Parenthetically, it was such conversations that resulted in the establishment of ICEC. These events provide opportunities for us to share information and learn from one another. Such forums have focused on children’s experiences of the civil war and tsunami in Sri Lanka, the genocide in Rwanda, and the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Speakers from these locations have participated in the forums and provided first-hand accounts of the impact on children of these social disasters. Their presentations provided opportunities for in-depth discussions that focused on culturally relevant responses to adverse childhood experiences with physicians, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and educators. Forums have also focused on Hurricane Katrina, with first-hand experiences shared by administrators from parishes in Louisiana that were devastated by the storm.
At the forums we ask: If we focus on children, can we change our perceptions of “the other” and recognize our common humanity? Can we think otherwise? Can we be other-wise? Can we focus on the other’s child? Is that a possibility? Is it possible for us to consider the health and well-being of everybody’s child in our response to events that are taking place? In his reflections on the human condition, Richard Holloway (2008) writes, “Our thoughts, words and deeds have ongoing ethical consequences that determine our future lives.” He reminds us that “the way we have lived will leave its mark, for good or ill, on the world our children and our children’s children will inherit” (p. 87).
For ICEC, the conversations are important because they provide opportunities to discuss critical issues in a positive way, even though there might be wars and ethnic, racial and religious divisions. Participants have observed that when we focus on children, the tensions that exist between individuals and groups do indeed seem to subside. The forums have created a space in which it is possible to be comfortable being uncomfortable, in which beliefs are respected – cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, political and national – while at the same time participants are encouraged to see beyond what they believe. At one forum we listened as Saji Prelis, a humanitarian aid worker from Sri Lanka, told us that armed men put a gun to the head of his friend and killed him as they walked home from school together. For almost two hours we listened as Immaculée Mukashema recounted what happened to her and her family during the genocide in Rwanda. “When my husband was killed during the genocide my children were three and half and almost two years of age and my children were not doing well,” she said. “My son wanted to go and live with the animals because he had lost his faith in men.” Participants spoke of feeling helpless at that moment when Immaculée spoke of her son losing hope. But of feeling there was much we can do when, perhaps sensing the hopelessness in the room, Immaculée said, “So I decided to go back to school. I knew exactly what I was going to do. Teach. I teach for humanity,” she said, “and for the humanity of my children.”
Clearly, there are no simple solutions. The world’s children are in crisis, and the work of ICEC requires much more than transdisciplinary and professional conversations. It is not enough for us to feel for children who are hurt and suffering; the challenge to our humanity is to feel with them, to be with them. For millions of children, the effects of mass trauma, the violence they experience, can last forever. We need to be agents of change, working together to expand current understandings and to address the crucial need for the amelioration of the effects of traumatic experiences on the lives of children.
Among the outcomes of the forums are the connections that have been made between participants, teachers helping teachers, and school children helping school children in local, national and international contexts. Doctoral students in the Literacy Studies Department at Hofstra have spent summers in Louisiana and Croatia. Hofstra faculty in the School of Education, Health and Human Services and Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have made initial visits to Bangladesh, Haiti, Liberia and Peru to establish sustainable ICEC projects in these countries. ICEC is also engaged in longitudinal research projects in Louisiana, post-Katrina, and in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The ICEC Web site (hofstra.edu/ICEC) has detailed descriptions of these projects and links to articles that have been published.
Many years of ethnographic field research in national and international settings, together with the intensive study of the medical research on trauma and mass trauma, form the basis of the ICEC’s active engagement in regions where catastrophic events have occurred. The imperative to gain deeper understandings of the interrelationships between the psychological, social, cultural, and physical traumas experienced by children is constant and at the center of all ICEC projects and initiatives.
There are two findings from medical and psychiatric research that frame the projects and initiatives of ICEC, and they are worth the contemplation of politicians, economists, and members of the legal profession, as well as physicians, mental health professionals, educators and humanitarian aid workers. The first idea is derived from a meta-analysis of 160 studies of 60,000 victims of mass trauma, which suggests that “rapid re-establishment of social structures bolsters resilience and can minimize psychological problems" (Shalev, Tuval-Mashiach & Hadar, 2004). These researchers emphasize the importance of first response efforts to reestablish family and community life, and, similar to Anand Pandya (2006), they stress that in most circumstances restoration of the social fabric of family life should precede individual psychological interventions. Essentially, from the child’s point of view, feeling safe and cared for preempts any other interventions. Thus, if the focus is on restorative and transformative projects to create healthy and sustainable communities for children and their families, there are many opportunities, locally as well as globally, for everyone to get involved. Parenthetically, during the current severe economic crisis, the need is local as well as global. Many children and their families on Long Island and in the New York metropolitan region are losing their homes. Support is available for schools and community groups that are working with children and their families during this crisis.
The second finding is based on the research by psychiatrists, including Bessel van der Kolk, who emphasize the importance of engaging children in projects and activities that do not remind them of the traumatic circumstances of their everyday lives. Van der Kolk (2005) stresses the importance of “establishing safety and competence for children who have experienced complex traumas.” He underscores the importance of children experiencing “a sense of pleasure,” and he argues that feeling safe and having fun is central to human development. There is a significant body of medical research that supports van der Kolk’s conclusion that children who have adverse life experiences can be supported in healthy learning environments. Even the most hurt children can become more resilient if we focus on the social environments in which they live and learn, and if their learning experiences are joyful – which is difficult to achieve in high-stress, test-crazed U.S. schools.
One of the specific goals of ICEC at Hofstra is to provide support for more projects and educational initiatives that have the potential to increase the social and psychological resources and educational opportunities available to children, and to strengthen their resiliency and recovery from trauma. The projects and activities focus on supporting children who have adverse childhood experiences. They are grounded in medical research and the work of psychiatrists and mental health workers such as those mentioned above, and emphasize the importance of children’s participation in joyful learning environments. The projects and activities are also responsive to the recommendations of The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.
Thus, ICEC focuses on:
- Reestablishing the social and community life disrupted by catastrophic events.
- Recognizing the importance of heritage and national identity and local leadership and participation.
- Establishing schools as safe, joyful places for children and teachers.
- Ensuring that schools are nurturing and fun environments.
- Promoting children’s health and well-being by providing them with opportunities to sing, dance and play.
- Enhancing academic learning through literacy activities, art and science projects, and other meaning-making practices.
Shifting the focus to the health and wellbeing of children, as well as their academic development, brings together medical and educational research in ways that create opportunities for doctors and teachers to work together, for artists and musicians to get involved, for scientists to address global problems such as droughts and floods with children, and for politicians, economists and lawyers to find ways for the work to take place, while other members of the academy provide critical appraisal of the activities that are taking place, encouraging us to look beyond the ways we see.
We know of human cruelty. Some of us have experienced it ourselves. “It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel,” Holloway (2008) writes. “It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful. It is world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy. It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us, as we lean towards one another over broken gates” (p. 170). There are no simple solutions to human problems, but it is essential that we discuss them and find ways to act – if not for altruistic reasons, then for pragmatic reasons – for the sake of all our children. If we could acknowledge that, whatever the cause of human disasters and catastrophes, children are invariably the ones who suffer the most, physically, emotionally and psychologically. If we could agree that they are the ones that suffer because of human recklessness and immorality. If we could ratify the documents that have been produced that state that children have human rights – and then admit that we are breaking them. If we could reach a common understanding that caring for everybody’s child is essential to human morality. If we could ... ? Robert Coles (2009) says that children have an unflagging determination to figure things out ... if we could regain that sensibility.
There is no doubt that ICEC comes with attitude, and a particular point of view about children. Every child needs food, water and medicine. Every child needs love, caring and compassion, and to live with their families whenever possible. Every child needs the opportunity to go to school to be educated. Admittedly unachievable, but that does not mean we should not try. At the very least, we can impress by our actions that there is nothing more important than the lives of children. No nation, no government, no religion, no soldier, no armed conflict, no freedom fighter, no aggressive act, no politician, no profiteer, no international corporation is worth the lives of our children. Not one child, anywhere, any time.
If you would like to participate in ICEC conversations, arrange seminars or workshops, or take a more active role in ICEC projects and activities, please send an e-mail.
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