Children in dark times Ian on Sunday
by Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
March 14, 2004

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The saddest sight in Guyana today is of the children you see on the pavements idling, cursing, selling cigarettes and sweets, lost and homeless, most of them on their way to perdition of one sort or another.

And the most heartening sight is of the children coming out of school in a mass, looking well-fed and well-clothed, despite all the problems, and with at least a few books and lunch-box often, despite all the problems, and always full of the brightness, vibrancy and hope of children, despite all the problems.

Our children. They matter most by far in all we do as individuals and as a country. And therefore we should try to attend more seriously than we now do, to the responsibilities we owe to children as described in the Convention of the Rights of the Child of the United Nations. The Convention declares, among other things, that all children shall be provided with education, social security and health care; shall be protected from exploitation, abuse and torture; and, on reaching a reasonable age, shall be consulted on any decisions involving them. Do you recognize in those fine words the situation in Guyana today when remorseless cruelty towards children seems to be getting out of hand? The brutal beating of children, even to death, must seem simply depraved to normal people but it is happening and it is a terrible reflection on our society.

Tragically, in country after country the neglect and brutalisation of children is growing more widespread. It is time the world paid real attention to implementing the Convention of the Rights of the Child. More than a decade ago there was a UNICEF report entitled unforgettably 'Children In Dark Times.' It was an appropriate title for a document which noted that as many as 50,000 children were then dying every day from diseases that are preventable. The years have passed but the condition does not change. 'Children In Dark Times' indeed. UNICEF estimated that the cost of additional programmes to prevent 50 million child deaths in the decade of the 1990s would have been about 1.5 billion pounds a year. "This is the amount," UNICEF pointed out then, "that American tobacco companies spend on advertising in one year, and the amount spent on vodka in the Soviet
Union each month." Nothing in essence has changed since then, except that the vodka is no longer drunk in a place called the Soviet Union. Those children are continuing to die.

And of course, it is not only the physical deaths. UNESCO's latest estimate is that one billion people living now have grown up unable to read or write, a loss of mind almost as great a tragedy as the loss of life itself.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has an interesting ancestry. It began to be drafted when UNESCO declared 1978/79 the Year of the Child to coincide with the centenary of the birth of a remarkable Pole called Janucz Korczak, who through his devotion to the rights and welfare of children became known in his lifetime as 'King of the Children.'

Korczak was born in 1878 in Warsaw. When still quite young he became a celebrated paediatrician. He then added to this an author's fame, writing novels and fairy tales for children which sent his name far beyond the city of Warsaw. One might have thought that would have been enough to satisfy any man. However, Korczak then decided to devote his life to the immediate, practical care of abandoned children so he built and became the director of a new orphanage in Warsaw.

For thirty years he ran his orphanage and wrote books about the care and respect and love due to children everywhere. Then in August, 1942, came the event that more than any other exemplified his whole life. The Nazis, who had overrun Poland, came for the Jewish children in Korczak's orphanage. They took 200 of them to be gassed at the Treblinka concentration camp. Korczak could not stop the atrocity but he did what he felt he could do for the 200 frightened children. He went with them voluntarily to Treblinka and with them to the last he went to the gas chamber and died with them. Rightly they blessed and honoured him 'King of the Children.'

Korczak wrote many learned treatises and many famous books and delivered many notable lectures and addresses. However, there was one simple lecture he gave which I like to think must have had a greater impact than any address he ever gave or any story he ever wrote. It was a lecture at the Warsaw Childs' Hospital entitled 'The Heart of the Child.'

He entered the lecture hall with a small boy holding his hand tight. Without a word, he took off the child's shirt, placed him behind a fluoroscope and turned off the overhead light. Everyone could see the boy's heart beating rapidly on the screen. "Don't ever forget this sight," Korczak told the students. "Remember always what a child's frightened heart looks like. That's all for today."