April 21, 2004
Throughout Mexico and Mexican-American communities, April 30 is observed as el Dia del Nino (tilde over n), the day of the child.
It is a day to celebrate childhood: Libraries provide free books to children; parents give them candies; schools hold talent shows.
This April 30, we should reflect on the plight of children throughout the world and do something to make their lives better. Many of them do not have access to basic human rights. Poverty, war, hunger, inadequate sanitation and housing, sexual exploitation, violence, obstacles to education and other problems plague the lives of millions of children across the globe.
According to nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, more than 250 million children between 5 and 14 are forced to work, many of them in jobs with hazardous conditions. More than half of these children are working fulltime in jobs ranging from agriculture and domestic service to construction and manufacturing. Four-year-old children can be found tied to rug looms to keep them from running away.
These children are often left disabled with visual impairments, lung disease and stunted growth. Millions of these children are bonded laborers. They are handed over to employers for a small advance given to the family, which the children are then forced to work off. With added "expenses" and "interest," many children never work off the debt.
In more than 30 countries all over the world, children are being used as soldiers in military forces. Boys and girls as young as 7 or 8 may be kidnapped and forced to participate in violence so extreme that they are often given drugs to overcome their fear and reluctance. Girls who are used as soldiers are frequently subjected to sexual abuse in addition to performing combat duties.
One major problem facing these children is lack of education. According to Global March against Child Labor, a third of all children don't make it through the first five years of primary school, the minimum needed for basic literacy. And more than 100 million throughout the world never attend any primary school. As a result, today there are more than 140 million illiterate young people in the world.
Children in the United States also face daily hardships. In the wealthiest country in the world, 12 million children live in poverty. Twenty-seven million children live in low-income homes, although 85 percent of these homes include at least one working parent. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the numbers are increasing.
A 2000 Human Rights Watch report found between 300,000 and 800,000 children working as farm workers under dangerous conditions, such as exposure to pesticides and heat poisoning. Other issues are also harming children in the U.S. In 2001, Human Rights Watch found that gay and lesbian youth in United States were three times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and that schools were not providing safe environments for them. Daily, girls face sexual harassment in their schools.
The Day of the Child should be a day to take action, no matter how small, to help improve children's lives.
One step is to write your Senators, urging them to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention provides for basic human rights for children and has been ratified by 191 nations worldwide. Only two nations have not ratified it -- the United States and Somalia. Tell your Senators to make this a priority.
Second, share what you know about the plight of children with others in your workplace or your community. Ask them to take action.
Donate your time or money to an organization working to help children. You can also contact corporations and ask them to make donations. Many organizations will accept excess inventory from companies. Such items are priceless to children who need clothing, school supplies and much more.
The Day of the Child is a time to rejoice in the presence of the young ones in our lives, to be grateful for their innocence, their energy and their laughter. Take a moment to listen to a child's dreams.
Yolanda Chvez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas and co-wrote this piece with her son, Jos Miguel Leyva, a freelance writer who lives in Oregon. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.