Interfaith Forum on Children's Rights

Building an alternative world: affirming the dignity of children
( [email protected] ) Jan 22, 2004 09:54 AM EST

MUMBAI, India - Leaders representing different faith communities around the world gathered in Mumbai, India for the ecumenical seminar on protecting the rights of children, Jan 19. The two day seminar, dubbed, "Building an alternative world: affirming the dignity of children”, was sponsored and organized by several Christian ecumenical bodies, including the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in India and the Christian Conference of Asia at the World Social Forum.

The main issue of discussion was the impact of globalization on impoverished children. The moderator, WCC Asia secretary Matthews George Chunakara, noted that globalization and economic market reforms often press children to work at an early age as breadwinners for their families.

Chunakara emphasized the escalating number of children in the labor-force in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Southern Europe, and urged religious bodies to get involved in protecting these children. According to Chunakara, these children are the mute testimony of economic recession, unemployment, poverty, break-down of traditional patterns of social and economic life, family disruption and lack of willingness of governments to protect the well-being of their peoples.

Eunice Santana de Velez, a Puerto Rico-based member of the new WCC Commission on Diakonia and Development, said that the Bible demands special attention and care for children. For Santana, the cardinal principles of Christianity affirm that children should be treated with dignity. This will not come about by treating children like adults, she argued; around the world, many children are victims of brutal violence, discrimination and human rights violations. Rather, "adults need to become like children," she suggested.

The seminar also featured speakers from different faith backgrounds, including Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh.

Farid Esack, director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Progress in Islam, said that both women and children exist on the edge of society. "Our attitude towards women and children may be one of kindness," but it does not accord them "dignity, justice and rights" he suggested.

In the new globalized world, Esack said, the economic system impacts strongly on children's lives. Like other social actors, religious bodies too need to ask themselves about how they use their power and resources for the good, or not, of children.

An Indian social worker and human rights activist, Swami Agnivesh spoke about radical changes needed in the religious perspective toward children. Known for his work in human rights and on child labour, Agnivesh highlighted the lack of access to basic education of India's poor children.

"According to government statistics, India has between 80 and 100 million children who do not go to school. The majority of these children are lower castes, Dalits, and Tribals from the weakest sectors of society. They are considered expendable," he said. According to Agnivesh, religious institutions should care more for the plight of children; they should fulfil their mandate to serve the poor and needy, he said.

Rahul Vyas, a Hindu delegate of a Gujarat-based non-governmental organization (NGO), Child Health Integration Through Livelihood and Development, mentioned that religious bodies could do much to improve the conditions of children world over. Religious leaders and institutions should mobilize society and even governments to address the issues of children, he said.