BY ROBYN CHOI
OPINION, Dec 15 ― “Children are meant to be seen, not heard”…”Who made you the boss of me?” …”Under my roof, it is only my rules”… “ But I have rights! “Your grandparents would have given me two tight slaps if I had a smart mouth like yours”.
A child is often seen as a “little human being”.
Do we regard a child as an individual with full human rights, no different to an adult human?
Human rights apply to everyone, which means children have the same human rights as adults. The fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in our Federal Constitution are accorded to all citizens, and that includes children.
Except that children get additional rights because they are special.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) accords anyone below 18 special rights to care and protection along with the full range of human rights ― civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Malaysia acceding to the CRC (with reservations on Articles 2, 7, 14, 28(1) and 37).
Malaysia made laws to give effect to the CRC ― the Child Act 2001, and other legislation provide for children’s rights, their welfare, education and protection against maltreatment, abuse, and exploitation.
Children rights are important. Do you remember what it was like as a child, feeling small because everyone was bigger, smarter, faster, stronger and louder? Do you remember being afraid to voice your disagreement with the bigger people? Were you ever made to feel that your opinion does not count? Do you remember how often you yelled “It is not fair!”.
I grew up with three brothers in a traditional and large extended family, where boys were favoured by the grandparents and great grandparents.
Hierarchy of importance was determined by age and gender. So were household chores. As a little girl, I felt like I was pretty much at the bottom of the pile (my brothers will deny this).
1979 was a very special year ― The United Nations specifically earmarked the whole year as the International Year of the Child.
In Methodist Girls Primary School, Kuantan, each of us received a beautiful plastic folder with bookmarks and a booklet, all of which sets out children’s rights in beautiful calligraphy.
That year, we took part in programmes which emphasised that we, children, have a special place in communities, in schools and at home. I remember being introduced to the idea of “United Nations” for the first time, thinking it was grand! I learnt to sing the song “Anak in three languages.
That year, I learnt about other children who had very different lives from mine. I remember being grateful (and with some guilt) that I was a not starving child in Africa or a child who had to labour in the fields or factories.
That year and for years to come I grew to appreciate my free education. From Standard One to Form 6 I had a school that lacked nothing ― headmistresses who knew me by name, wonderful teachers who taught more than the set syllabus, other little girls for friends, well-stocked libraries, sports facilities and yes even musical instruments for a brass band! In primary school, we even had our own dental clinic ― which I dare say none of us liked.
And the best part ― I remember being strangely pleased when told that somehow girls and boys were equally important, that children are as important as adults, and that I should not be afraid to voice my thoughts (even though it often got me into trouble). I learnt a lot about rights that year.
The right to life, the right to grow up healthy in a safe and good environment. No abuse, neglect or exploitation.
The right to equality, free from discrimination.
The right to freedom of expression ― the right to speak and the right to be heard.
The right to have friends, join in clubs ― the right of association, the right to play.
The right to education ― not just to attend school but to learn.
Our government can boast year after year of having set aside a high portion of our national budget on education for children, yet, the reality is that our children are not getting the quality education that they deserve.
Education is not free in this country ― quality education that is. Parents are struggling to send their children to private schools. National schools with all the assistance from the government are failing our kids, while giving them As.
Our children have rights.
How many parent, teacher or community leader is aware of the CRC let alone be mindful of the same and accord the children under their care their full rights provided under the CRC?
More often than not, children have to negotiate their rights even though those rights are not alienable.
Do you know any family using the CRC as a guide in parenting?
Or schools using the CRC as a teaching tool?
The extent a child is accorded his or her rights is determined by the adult charged with their care ― normally parents and teachers.
That determination on rights is often arbitrary ― it hinges on the adult’s patience, fatigue or mood and other factors which has nothing to do with the child.
A child learns early that conformation and obedience often opens the doors to having rights.
Are children’s rights accorded only when children conform to the expectations, wishes and rules set by adults? Often those parameters are set without participation or input from the child or reference to the CRC.
How many teachers are trained in human rights ― children’s rights to be precise?
The CRC mandates that children’s rights be taught in schools and hold programs to create awareness and to promote children’s rights.
If all adults caretakers are trained on a child’s rights and subscribe to the CRC, things will be very different for our children, especially those from marginalised communities’ groups.
Too, too many children have been lost in recent years due to neglect, maltreatment and abuse ― in the hands of adults and a system that has failed them.
Too many still suffer and no one hears them.
In communities and government, the voice of the child is normally not heard, not represented and not made a priority.
It is important to encourage child participation in decision-making ― in the family, school, community and government ― for matters which concerns them.
If children, especially those from disadvantaged groups, were given a voice and courage to speak, a voice which we are willing to hear, can you imagine what they have to say?
What will a child bride say? What will children suffering from abuse or neglect tell us? What about children with disabilities? Orang Asli Children? What will we hear?
Sadly, there are schools (the kind of schools where cane-carrying Gestapos go around in the guise of teachers) which norm is to discipline children for expressing themselves when not spoken to.
It is a sure way to get disciplined if a child were to question or challenge the authority of the adult.
A quiet class is often regarded as a disciplined class, a quiet child is considered well-behaved and polite. A child who questions authority is often considered as “precocious”, “difficult “ or “rebellious”.
We protest when the government silence dissent and punish those who challenge their authority.
Are we then not guilty of resorting to similarly repressive actions against children who dissent and challenge the authority of their adult caretaker?
“The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children” ― Nelson Mandela
* Robyn Choi is secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM)
Since 1950, the world marks December 10 as Human Rights Day. It is a day to create awareness to fundamental human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.
This year, the National Human Rights Society, in collaboration with Malay Mail Online, is publishing seven articles over seven days to bring attention to seven specific interest areas concerning human rights in Malaysia.