Innocents lost

Despite the grandiose rhetoric, millions of the world’s children remain left behind.

No child left behind
Over half of all births in the developing world are unregistered, denying more than 50 million children a basic birthright: recognition as a citizen.
THE "NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND" ACT celebrated its fourth anniversary in January with only minor pomp as President Bush starred in a lackluster photo-op at a Maryland public school. Could be the understated event signaled the president’s reluctant acknowledgement of the program’s many disappointments. Critics charge that NCLB is $40 billion underfunded, succeeding most in generating more testing but less learning. The National Assessment of Education Progress gave the effort an overall failing grade.

Not to worry, though. Poor kids in the U.S. are certainly in good, even crowded company. Children the world over are getting left behind even as pledges for additional aid from the globe’s wealthier nations pile higher and higher. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but political grandstanding has got to provide the pathway’s mortar. Too bad the world’s kids can’t find sustenance from hot air.

The day before the president descended into Maryland for his NCLB pep talk, the Vatican issued its second annual report on the state of the world’s children. It was released a few days after the Catholic calendar celebrates the December 28 Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day when Catholics remember the innocent child victims of adult cruelty and callousness. Today the world is full of Herods who find ways to spiritually and physically slaughter the childhoods of the innocents in a thousand dreadful ways. The Vatican report, which relied heavily on a recent UNICEF study, tracks more than 860 million child-victims of malnutrition, disease, sex trafficking, and other forms of economic and social exploitation.

Some low-lights:

Among the world’s estimated 211 million child laborers about 171 million work in hazardous conditions—operating dangerous machinery, handling toxic materials, or laboring in poorly ventilated mines.

Millions of children were forced into combat or prostitution in 2005. Some 8.4 million children work in the worst forms of child labor, including debt bondage, where children essentially endure slavery to pay off inherited family debt.

Nearly 2 million children “work” in the commercial sex trade, where they routinely face sexual and physical violence.

A vast, but unknown number of children are exploited as domestic servants in private homes.

Jesus did say “suffer the children,” but I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.

UNICEF reports that part of the reason these terrible conditions are ignored is the “invisibility” of many children. Every year over half of all births in the developing world are unregistered by any government authority, denying more than 50 million children a basic birthright: recognition as a citizen. “Children who are not registered at birth do not appear in official statistics and are not acknowledged as members of their society,” UNICEF notes. “Without a registered identity, children are not guaranteed an education, good health care, and other basic services that impact their childhood and future.”

But children are invisible for other reasons, too. They can’t vote, so their social security isn’t the third rail of American politics. Politically they are the weakest and most vulnerable members of any society. Their needs often end up at the end of the budget line even in advanced economies like the United States that do have the resources to respond to all children’s needs.

A sign of our times is the many ways we “suffer the children,” crucifying them and their future with each passing day of personal indifference and each federal budget we accept that does not include a realistic commitment to global poverty relief. Simply achieving our meager pledge of 0.7 percent of GNP would essentially ensure that children all over the world get the head start they need, that they deserve.

No child, wherever he or she is born, should be left behind. It’s an oft repeated, even trite observation that children are our future; it’s time for us to invest as if our future depended on it. Because it does.

By Kevin Clarke, senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the March 2006 (Volume 71, Number 3; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles