Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Religion

RIGHTS-JAPAN: Youths Find Their 'Voice'

Lynette Lee Corporal

HIROSHIMA, May 25 2008 (IPS) - If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step then such a step has just been taken by a group of children from different parts of the world, guided by an older generation dedicated to giving youth a brighter and safer future.

From left - Nader Castilla, Clara Mduma, Kaveri Raja, and Aydan Allahyarova. Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

From left - Nader Castilla, Clara Mduma, Kaveri Raja, and Aydan Allahyarova. Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

At the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) Third Forum, being held here until May 26, some 42 youngsters are expressing themselves and sharing their ideas in the presence of adults working with different groups ranging from religious organisations, civil society, non-government organisations and international agencies – to name a few.

This year's theme of "Learning to Share: Values, Action, Hope" seeking to strengthen commitment to children and put an end to poverty, violence and environmental degradation, is apt in the light of what countless children face in their daily lives.

According to the United Nations, over 600 million of the world's 2.2 billion children live in absolute poverty worldwide. About 218 million children, meanwhile, are victims of child labour. Over 2.5 million are infected with HIV/AIDS, and around 300,000 are forced to become child soldiers.

At a two-day pre-forum meeting held here on May 22 and 23, children from different parts of the world came together and discussed these very issues and expressed their views on these challenges.

"The GNRC meeting has taught me about peace and how to come up with conflict resolutions at the family, community and the national levels," shared 18-year-old Clara Mduma, who hails from Tanzania.

An active member of the youth group, Peace Club, in her country, Mduma was first introduced to the GNRC ideals via a UNICEF workshop in 2004, which opened her eyes to the problems faced by children in her country.

Apart from physical abuse within the family setting, brought about by a polygamous society, children in Tanzania are also subjected to violent traditional practices including female genital mutilation and ritualistic killings specifically of albino children. The latter is done by witch doctors who are said to harvest the dead child's body parts for use in magic potions or items for get-rich-quick schemes.

"In the African tradition, males are given more importance in the family so a girl is forced to remain at home and do all the work or help their mothers. Since girls are not really given proper education, they run away to the bigger cities to be able to study or earn money," said Mduma, who is a Christian. She added that sexual harassment and rape cases are also common dangers faced by girls in her country.

Sharing a similar sentiment, 14-year-old Kaveri Raja from India counted female infanticide and poverty as just a couple of the many problems faced by youth in her country.

"In rural areas, many children are forced to stay and work in their homes and are not sent to school," said Raja, who formed the "Walking Together: 100 Days, 1,000 Activities, 10,000 Children" project in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu last March as part of an international ethics promotion campaign in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The project is aimed at getting the top political leadership in each country to listen to the needs of the children.

Fifteen-year-old Nader Castilla from Spain, a member of the Baha'i faith, meanwhile, is concerned about the problems of racism and violence perpetrated by youth gangs and terrorists, as well as physical abuse in the home and drug use.

Violence does not only come from such as ETA, a Basque separatist group, but also from youth gangs involved in criminal activities such as the notorious Latin Kings. "These are youths who are involved in stealing and killing," said Castilla.

Orphans, refugees and internally displaced persons, the result of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1980s, figure high on Aydan Allahyarov’s list of people who need assistance. Physical violence in orphanages, poverty and pollution are just some of the challenges children in her native Azerbaijan.

"We learn about the abuses of orphans by their caretakers as well as of girls marrying at the young age of 16 in rural areas, and the environmental damage to our forests and bodies of water, especially the Caspian Sea which has become a dumping ground of waste products by different countries in the region," explained 14-year-old Aydan.

For 15-year-old Vivianna Castillo of Ecuador, the violence suffered by children is more of the psychological kind. Apart from poverty, she said children in her country are maltreated verbally by family members.

One cause of frustration is that policy-makers, leaders and other institutions are slow in responding to calls for help. Mduma, for instance, is aware of the tight grip of tradition on the leaders. "It's difficult to make them listen because they themselves are involved in polygamous relationships. We have presented our case to the media and were given a venue but they didn't seem to hear us because they can't be bothered by mere children," she told IPS.

In Spain, said Castilla, people "don't do much because they know that whatever help they give will only be pocketed by unscrupulous groups. They care but this is not usually translated into action".

Despite such odds, these youth leaders remain optimistic. When they go back to their respective countries, they will be bringing with them practical ways to try to resolve the challenges facing their generation. Besides, some sectors are beginning to take notice. In Mduma and Castilla's countries, for instance, a child is given tools to fight back. These come in the form of telephone helplines and laws aimed at protecting child rights.

"We're being listened to and I can say what I think and what I want to do," said Aydan, adding that open communication is important if all sectors want to move forward, albeit step by 'baby' step.

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