Children, Structural Violence, and the UNCRC: Reflections for Children’s Advocates

Mitch Hall

children1If we want to promote children’s rights and to protect children from violence, abuse, neglect, and trauma, we need to take into account the ravages on children’s wellbeing of structural violence – the unjust, harmful, institutionalized inequalities of wealth, social status, and power that cause disproportionate death, disability, despair, humiliation, and heartache among the disadvantaged. Structural violence is manifested in class and caste hierarchies, in the stigmatizing and oppression of minorities, and in the military, political, and economic exploitation of the poor.

Compared with structural violence, direct violence against children is more easily understandable and emotionally compelling in its immediacy. It is horrifying to learn about adults who neglect children or abuse them physically, emotionally, or sexually. We can work to do something about such issues. For example, we can become therapists to support the emotional healing of abused and neglected children. We can take up causes, such as the elimination of corporal punishment or of routine male circumcision, and we can promote gentle birthing practices and caring parenting.

But we urgently need to recognize how large-scale forces, embedded in social structures, traditions, and institutions, have also been violating children, as well as adults, on a mind-boggling, heart-breaking scale. As described by Marc Pilisuk in Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System (2008), “On a daily basis, we live in ways that result in the violent deaths of vulnerable people, particularly children, as a consequence of how we exploit, consume, and dispose of the environment that sustains human life” (p. x).

Pilisuk’s meticulous account provides an invaluable review of the chilling data on child soldiers, refugees from wars, war victims, land mines, diversion of resources to military costs, prostitution, and sweatshop labor. Such information can at times appear cold and abstract, and it is important to remember that such statistics refer ultimately to breathing, hoping, despairing, suffering, individual children – children whose potentials for health, happiness, and altruism are being thwarted on a global scale by the heartless policies of privileged, self-interested, highly organized elites with inordinate corporate, political, and military power at their disposal. These elites maintain systems that are inherently structurally violent, and the legitimacy of these structures is reinforced by cultural values, norms, and beliefs, as well as by media-propagated disinformation.

This dismal picture of the plight of children affected by structural violence demands from us intrepid, strategic, and collective action. One important initiative involves current efforts to enhance the enforcement of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a potent vehicle for promoting the human rights of children and counteracting the exploitation and oppression of children in the varied manifestations of structural violence.

The Convention is organized around four core principles: “non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child” (UNICEF). Adopted by the UN General Assembly almost 20 years ago, the UNCRC has been ratified by the governments of 193 countries. Among member states, only two – the United States and Somalia – have sadly neglected to fully ratify the Convention.

It is therefore urgent for children’s rights advocates and for professional organizations concerned with children’s welfare to mount a concerted campaign to persuade the U.S. government to ratify the UNCRC and to support its enforcement. Resistance to ratification has been based in large measure on two issues. First, the state of Texas can legally convict minors of certain crimes and condemn them to capital punishment, which the UNCRC strictly forbids for children (defined as human beings under the age of 18). Second, conservative members of the U.S. Senate have expressed concern that the UNCRC could interfere with parental sovereignty over the raising of children. This objection appears to be irrational when the evidence is weighed and the UNCRC is carefully read.

In sum, if we wish to promote nonviolent childrearing, we need to become more aware of the violent systems that are destroying and distorting so many young lives, and to do whatever we can to transform our societies and cultures into humane systems that sustain and nurture our children. Creating a movement to persuade the U.S. government to ratify the UNCRC and to develop policies that are consistent with its enforcement must be a priority.

PsySR member Mitch Hall works for a non-profit agency in Richmond, California as a clinical therapist for disadvantaged, ethnically diverse children and youth. He is a peace activist and advocate for children rights, and can be reached at Psychologists for Social Responsibility is currently developing a multifaceted advocacy and education initiative on nonviolent childrearing. For more information, please email


4 Responses to “Children, Structural Violence, and the UNCRC: Reflections for Children’s Advocates”

  1. Norm Lee Says:

    You have given us a clear, concise, kick-ass challenge to take immediate action against the horrific abuses that children world-side currently suffer. They cry in pain because the world fails to value children and feel compassion for them. I thank Mitch Hall for stating the case against this universal neglect for us to ponder, and inspire us to – at last – take effective, intelligent action. – Norm Lee

  2. Robert Fathman, Ph.D. Says:

    Excellent article, and very timely. It is a sad embarrassment that the U.S. is alone in the world, except for the non-government of Somalia, in not yet ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet prospects for ratification must be good, since the political right has suddenly mounted an attempt to amend the Constitution in a way that would negate the impact of ratification. Why? Because these 70+ Republican Congresspeople and their backers want no restrictions on parents’ and educators’ use of corporal punishment on children, even when injuries are inflicted. More about this political travesty can be found here: the Hoekstra bill: . Be ready to write your Congressperson and letters to the editor exposing the real intent of this ligislation.

    • a home educator Says:

      This Constitutional amendment you speak of has nothing to do with injury causing corporal punishment but with a parent’s right to care for, provide for, and protect our children properly. Child abuse laws are already in place here in the US and corporal punishment is gone from the public schools. However, one issue this amendment will protect is the right to home educate our children.

      England has ratified the treaty and home educators there are being told they should be watched, regulated, etc. and the government agrees based on the UNCRC. (See the Graham Badman report to the British Secretary of State for Children, Families, and Education) It is not an outrageous presumption for the same thing to happen here in the US if we were to ratify the treaty without an amendment supporting parental rights.

      When the ‘public school system’ wouldn’t/couldn’t protect and educate my daughter, then we provided a better education, directed from home, with tutors that excelled in their subject area. She then dual enrolled her last two years of high school at a local college. She now, at 17, is entering a college in another state with a double major which she should finish in 3 years. She has a part time job, is independent, and has many close friends. As parents, we analyze our children’s gifts and talents and lead our children to become adults, because we are responsible for them and want the best for them. A government official or law cannot do this because the purpose of the law is adequacy and equality while my purpose as a parent, is quality and fairness. Equality says everyone must receive the same; fairness says everyone has what they need to succeed.

      How the UNCRC is interpreted by different cultures and economies is not discussed and here is where the complications begin. For example, in one nation, it is interpreted as all children have a right to an education so all girls are allowed to go to school along with the boys at a government sponsored school; while in another country, UNCRC is interpreted as only a state sponsored school is appropriate and the ultimate standard and anything else is suspect and needs to be watched. Until these scenarios are thought through, we cannot say if this treaty is in the best interest of our children in our culture.

      Why is home education so important? We have so much research that tells us that people have different intelligences, different ways to learn, and different development rates. So until the government based education systems can account for all of these differences, the one size fits all ‘public education system’ is not the best answer and/or choice for every child. In fact, there is not the money nor the hired trained professionals needed to carry out what the US government based education attempts to do now. Our over crowded classrooms and poor scores can attest to that. Just recently, I was tutoring a group of high school biology students, (public school), getting them ready for their end of course final and none of them had seen a prepared slide under a microscope. Why, because there wasn’t enough money left in the science department budget to buy microscope slides for this level of class. Needless to say, I brought mine from home; ironic that my home school had more resources.

      A mother and a home educator

  3. anonymous Says:

    I agree that the UNCRC must be ratified at once by the USA.Why? Because we can’t have 70+ neo-conservative politicians impose no restrictions on parents and teachers whipping children!!!! I would also like to congratulate the author of the preceding article,it was extremely moving. It is time for the USA to be on top of the world in human rights leadership.It’s also time for parents,neo-conservatives and teachers to learn that there is an alternative to using terror- tactics in raising children,and by terror-tactics I mean whipping for irrational reasons.

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