If 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Psychologists for Social Responsibility is currently developing a multifaceted advocacy and education initiative on nonviolent childrearing. For more information, please email email@example.com.