29 November 2013

Taking out a chapter from the Book of Hope

When does childhood end?  For the privileged children of this world it is a seamless move from infancy to adulthood through childhood and adolescence.  This, however, is not a happy world. The word ‘privilege’ itself implies the act of non-privilege.  The underprivileged children in this world, therefore, are often made to bypass certain life stages.  That unnatural ‘promotions’ make for quicker maturing but also robs innocence, dents tenderness and in the end further depletes the world’s reserves of humanity.

There are many ways to lose childhood early.  The death of a parent, for example.  It can happen naturally or by accident, a car crash or a bomb blast where the victim happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It can happen in conflict where children are orphaned because fathers took a  bullet; the fact that death was an any-moment reality is no consolation for the child.  The political identity of the father is only of academic importance.  The fact of being orphaned and all the trials yielded by that condition are of magnitudes that make the events that produced the reality of little or no consequence.  All that matters is the condition of being fatherless. 

If childhood is about play, then the threat of being orphaned or worse, of catching random bullet or being blown to pieces, does not allow for joyful and carefree prancing.  Parents can insulate children from these horrors but horror creeps through multiple system-loops.  The media will not be shut down.  One cannot wish away the funeral of a neighbor either.  

The entire island of Sri Lanka was a war zone for there was no telling when and where a bomb would explode.  There was no village which had not yielded a young man or woman to the security forces.  Every village knew of someone killed in battle, every village knew of those who lost eye or limb or both. 

And it was worse in areas where the fighting actually took place.  Children were not only forced to grow up seeing people being killed, they constantly lived under the threat of being abducted and forcibly conscripted to fight a war that no child could be expected to understand.

All that is over. 

And yet, there are things that conflict takes which are not returned at conflict-end.  Like the fathers who will never be part of their children’s growing-up, not even in its fragmented and distorted war-remnant reality. And so we have children, although spared the fear of abduction, living in broken families that will never be whole again.  They have mothers who have to be both mother and father, who have to struggle to nurture into adulthood children even as they have to do their best to earn the incomes their husbands brought home.  Not many can and that’s not because they are unwilling or lazy. 

Female-headed households are not produced by war alone. Abandonment and death can happen in other ways.  Conflict, however, inflates the numbers.  And when mothers cannot provide, when the resource endowment cannot support household, then it is natural for the older children to stop being kids and start being adults.  That’s when childhood ends. 

War-end is not consolation enough for these children.  That’s a fact that doesn’t really count. One does not dwell on the ‘small mercies’ when the bigger challenges have to be confronted or else succumb to starvation.  It is easy to talk of laws and rights.  These are important, but the conditions that make for child labor need to be addressed.  The dead cannot be brought back into the land of the living.  But what is society’s worth if it cannot protect its most vulnerable?  We live in a country and a world where states subsidize capital interests to scandalous levels even as the architects of economic policy rant and rave against subsidizing the impoverished.  We hear them scream ‘there are no free lunches’ even though free-lunch is what the privileged have everyday courtesy a system that sanctions exploitation if not outright plunder. 

We are told about ‘trickle-down theory’ when in fact (as the cartoon character Beetle Bailey observed more than 30 years ago) the only thing which trickles down is pain.  We are told ‘development’ will deliver.  We are shown magnificent roads, buildings and other infrastructure.  And yet we do not see avenues which take prosperity to the dispossessed but rather picks their pockets of whatever they have left.  That’s what landowner does, that’s what landlord does, that’s what the retail shop owner does and if they get as far as the bank, that’s what the teller does. 

How can children be children again or if you want to factor in context, how can a child be as much child as he or she is entitled to given circumstances? We can put in place mechanisms to ensure that children are not made to work but can we remove the conditions that make for a steady supply of child labor? 

No parent wants a child to be anything but a child.  If a parent is forced to thrust child into child labor market it is an indicator of desperation.  It is also an indication that we have, as a community, failed. 

No amount of poetry will change all this.  Policy alone will. 

In post-conflict Sri Lanka where every sentence spoken is followed by words such as reconciliation, peace and development one would think there’s nothing lacking when it comes to will.  The high incidence of child labor tells a different story.  Somewhere, something has gone wrong or somehow those who are supposed to have cast policy-gaze don’t have the eyes to see.

There’s a child missing in the whole post-conflict reconstruction-reconciliation-development story.  That would be a chapter ripped off from the Book of Hope.  Those pages need to be re-written one way or another. 




sajic said...

You are so correct, Malinda. 'Development' should have started at ground level,addressing basic needs. Instead, it has been top-heavy, ignoring human issues.