The Littlest Victims of Global 'Progress'
Ironically, children are being threatened by economic reforms,
the new politics and advances in technology
by Robin Wright
BANGKOK, Thailand--Under the bridge in Klong Toey's massive slum and around Bangkok's railway station, Thai boys gather nightly. Preteen labor is illegal in Thailand, but these kids work in shoe factories, gas stations or fisheries, even heavy labor. Others are child prostitutes or live off petty crime. Many are homeless.
The boys roughhouse, play with popguns and wait for "tricks," victims or employers who look for cheap labor at the rail station. Sniffing glue and paint thinner is now chronic in this age group.
Child labor has long been a problem in Asia, but social workers claim figures are soaring, despite government efforts, as Thailand presses to join the list of newly industrialized countries, or NICs.
"Becoming an NIC is destroying the social fabric of this society. And the kids are paying the highest price," said Rotjana Phraesrithong of the Foundation for Slum Child Care in Klong Toey.
In Latvia, the children show up in Riga's quaintly restored old town in the late afternoon. None looks older than about 7. Among a group of four boys, one has no socks and all wear only light sweaters, despite the cold in northern Europe.
With their hands outstretched, the boys trail people leaving Latvia's new privatized hotels, boutiques and restaurants. Late at night, they loiter under the bright lights of a new casino. Both Latvian and Russian children now beg on Riga's streets, explained Dmitri Yeryomin, a young interpreter, with embarrassment.
"This is all new to us. We didn't have beggars in the past. In the Communist days, the state took care of everyone," Yeryomin added. "Now it's everyone for himself."
For all of its scientific and technical advances, the world at the end of the 20th century is producing millions of children who have little hope of normal life, much less of leading the world into the 21st.
And many of the underlying causes today are otherwise-heralded forces of global change: new free markets, new political systems and new rights of people to speak, act or associate freely, and of nations to determine their own destiny.
"The view that the Cold War has gone out with a whimper rather than a bang, and that one side has won with hardly a shot being fired, is the first and most dangerous placebo of the new age," according to "The State of the World's Children 1994," the yearly survey of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF). (See chart on Page 5.)
"The Cold War has been more destructive than any war in human history; it has been a war in which there have been no winners and a war of which the severest consequences may yet be to come."
The picture is not all bleak, of course. Unprecedented breakthroughs were made during the Cold War. Indeed, until the late 1980s the 3 billion children worldwide had never been better off by many measures.
Since World War II, deaths of children under 5 have been halved. The number of Third World children who start school has risen from less than half to more than 75 percent--despite a doubling of the population. And 60% of rural families now have access to safe water--up from less than 10 percent, UNICEF said.
Just since the mid-1980s, the largest peacetime collaboration in history has provided child immunization throughout the developing world. The program saves about 10,000 lives a day, more than 3 million a year, UNICEF reports. Deaths from measles, for example, dropped from 2.5 million in 1980 to about a million a year now.
Overall, 70 percent to 80 percent of all children now have their basic needs in health and sanitation met, according to Save theChildren. Laws on issues such as maternity leave and working conditions are also giving new attention and weight to children's rights worldwide.
Among the most progressive is Norway's law allowing a mother to take a year off work at 80 percent pay after birth--or the same conditions for a father if the mother opts to return to work.
"We have made more global human progress in the last 50 years than in the previous 2000. Three-quarters of the world's population now enjoy the basics of a life of dignity, productivity and health," said James P. Grant, UNICEF's executive director.
At the same time, however, many changes since the great, global, sociopolitical upheaval that began in 1989 are seriously threatening progress. The new world order is turning out to be particularly hard on the young.
First and foremost, children are increasingly victims in a growing pattern of internal urban conflict on four continents.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the plight of 5-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, her body torn by shrapnel in an attack that killed her mother, inspired an airlift last summer--though not until after hundreds of other children died. (Despite treatment in London, Irma was paralyzed.)
Post-Cold War turmoil is also leaving deep scars on children from tiny Tajikistan in the former Soviet bloc to huge Zaire in the belly of Africa, from exotic Kashmir to mountainous Afghanistan.
After the superpowers stopped exploiting its territorial and tribal divisions for surrogate conflict, Angola's civil strife grew even nastier, reputedly killing about 1,000 children monthly in 1993. Since the Soviet demise, children have been hostages in the conflict between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Many of the dreams of the post-Cold War era were put on hold as rivals in a host of countries pursued ethnic, religious, territorial and political differences at the point of a gun. Children were among the first to suffer," UNICEF warned in a recent report.
Victims of War
The dangers in post-Cold War hot spots aren't just physical. For children "the psychological damage caused by war can be even more devastating," UNICEF added. About 70,000 children remain in Sarajevo, while a million refugees from Yugoslavia's multifaceted conflict are under 18. Whether injured, threatened or forced to flee, all face trauma from loss of health, family, home or country.
By mid-1993, the rape of Bosnian women by Serbian forces--atrocities redefining the term "child victims"--led to the births of hundreds of babies, nearly all of whom face life as outcasts.
On top of 18 million refugees, post-Cold War upheavals have led to the displacement of about 25 million people within their own countries. At least half in both categories are children, according to Judy Mayotte, chairwoman of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York.
"Internally displaced children are a glaring problem that has grown with global change since the 1980s. But they don't have the recognition as refugees because they're supposedly protected by a government--which is often party to the problem," Mayotte said.
"This is going to be the situation in a lot of places in the post-Cold War world, as other uprisings and internal conflicts break out, and as countries refuse or turn back refugees."
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled northern Iraq after a failed 1991 uprising against President Saddam Hussein--only to be held at the Turkish and Iranian borders. Children particularly succumbed to malnutrition, disease and frostbite.
Due to problems from societal breakdowns, UNICEF spent $170 million in 1992 on humanitarian aid in more than 50 states--the most since the post-World War II emergency and three times the 1990 level.
No More Safety Net
Abrupt political transitions are also weakening or eliminating the safety net of state protection. Economic reforms are unleashing cutthroat competition, an intense new version of survival of the fittest. And social transformations are altering rules of the game. Again, children often bear the brunt.
In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, transitions from socialist rule have removed everything from guaranteed incomes to state health and welfare services, affecting childrenthe most.
Many now face problems virtually unknown during seven decades of socialist rule, from medical neglect allowing old diseases like polio to make big comebacks in Bulgaria to the homelessness forcing children to camp out and panhandle in Russian subways.
Since the 1989 revolution, poverty has become so pervasive in Romania that most families spend 80 percent of their income on food, and about 4,000 children were left at orphanages in 1992. After years of declines, the rate of infant mortality rose 3 percent--and is now more than double the European average, the Health Ministry said.
"The post-Cold War world is not better for millions of children. They're less protected than before, and they're more vulnerable due to political and economic transitions," said Horst Habenicht, who runs the International Labor Organization's (ILO) new International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.
"The transition from planned economies to private market economies often means the social framework no longer exists in these countries, so there's little protection for people in general, and often none for children at all."
Transitions from right-wing rule in Latin America, much of which became democratic for the first time in 1991, have also marred children's lives.
Peru is a classic case. New freedoms have not resulted in greater prosperity. Foreign debt, privatization and stiffer economic competition from free-market forces have instead increased poverty. Five million children, nearly a quarter of the entire population, now live in extreme poverty, UNICEF reported.
"A major challenge in the 1990s is to find ways to make structural adjustments with a human face to cushion the vulnerable parts of society from the drastic effects of economic transitions," said Ken Kloten, executive director of Defense for Children International.
"We want these adjustments to ensure a free citizenry and for continued growth of democracy around the world--which is good for kids. But it will require resources, and we're living at a time that dollars are increasingly scarce for development aid."
One byproduct is a growing class of uneducated outcasts who prey on the system to survive. The magnitude is numbing. In Latin America, a record 40 million children are abandoned or homeless. Seven million are in Brazil, the World Health Organization said.
Nairobi's young street population rose from 16,000 in 1989 to 25,000, the U.N. Development Program reported. In Manila, 75,000 children are homeless, while Bombay, Calcutta and New Delhi each have 100,000. Numbers are also soaring in Eastern Europe.
As numbers grow, public sympathy wanes and backlash widens. "Street children are automatically regarded as criminal suspects by many law officers and are often subjected to harassment, threats or violent attacks," Amnesty International reported.
Last July, eight Brazilian boys, ages 11 to 17, were shot in cold blood in Rio de Janeiro. Four police officers were arrested for their murders. Since 1990, about 4,600 street children have been killed in Brazil.
"These children are a product of the breakdown of family support systems that come with population growth and migration to cities. As grim as life was in many villages, at least children had an extended family to rely on and a traditional way of life that gave meaning to their existence," said Dr. Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children.
Brazil isn't alone. As part of an anti-crime campaign by vigilantes, Colombian posters announced the "extermination of delinquents" and invited Bogota's 10,000 vagrant children to attend their own funerals in 1993, according to Amnesty International. In 1991 alone, about 2,800 children were murdered in Colombia, Amnesty added.
Worldwide, according to Defense for Children International, youngsters were victims of extrajudicial or arbitrary executions in 22 states last year.
Back to Work
Another characteristic of the new order is that after declining for decades, the frequency of child labor is again on the increase, particularly in the developing world. The ILO estimates that one in four children between the ages of 10 and 14 now work in Third World countries. The total is in the hundreds of millions.
On a still-sweltering winter day, Klong Toey's clay dirt alleys were empty of children. Only toddlers, some with childhood pigtails, played outside. Mothers were in short supply, too. At least 5 million Thai children, beginning at age 7, now work, said Chira Hongladarom, executive director of Bangkok's Human Resources Institute. More than 60 percent of Thai mothers also work.
"Economic growth over the past seven years has had a negative impact on the social system, particularly family structure. Children, now part of the productive process, are treated as economic goods rather than society's future," he said.
"The trend is happening despite--or perhaps because of--the modernizing process of international trade and investment," added Robert Sensor in a 1993 Freedom House report. In many NICs, human rights are secondary to economics in the name of development.
Children reportedly constitute 18 percent of Brazil's work force. Child labor is widespread in Africa, particularly in agriculture. An estimated 12 million children work in populous Nigeria.
But Asia has the most child labor. In India alone, 44 million children work, the ILO estimates. One of four Indian workers is under age 14.
In Indonesia, conservative figures claim that 2.4 million children between ages 10 and 14 work. Along China's eastern provinces, site of an economic boom, children have left school in droves for jobs in new factories, Sensor said. The problem was illustrated dramatically in a 1992 fire at a fireworks factory: most of 20 workers killed were between 9 and 14 years old.
The issue is not just age, but conditions and pay. In Thailand, girls work 12-hour days in textile shops. They earn as little as 5 cents for sewing on 100 buttons, or 10 cents for wrapping 100 silk flower stems, according to Bangkok's Foundation for Child Development. One-third work for less than minimum wage, Hongladarom added.
"Child labor is the single most important source of child abuse and child exploitation in the world," according to Michel Hansenne, ILO director general.
Again, new freedoms have contributed to the problem. "In socialist systems, the state organized work and excluded children. Now, free markets and private employers try to get the cheapest labor. With the state's role diminished, and no social protection or legislation in place, child labor is growing," Habenicht said.
Many countries in transition still haven't finished new constitutions or basic reforms, so meaningful legislation codifying children's rights, treatment and living or working conditions is a decade or more away. Enforcement will take even longer, he said.
The problem of child labor, however, has an even darker side. In the late 20th Century, 200 million child laborers work in slavery, forced child labor or debt bondage, an ILO study reported.
Slave raiders in Asia, Africa and Latin America kidnap or buy children into lifelong bondage, it charged. Slaves as young as 6 work up to 18 hours a day. In Haiti, more than 100,000 children, known as restaveks, have been sold or given away to work as domestics.
The most common form of slave labor is child prostitution. India reportedly has up to 400,000 child prostitutes, Brazil a quarter of a million, the Philippines 60,000 and Sri Lanka 30,000, many sold by families or trapped by debt bondage. In Thailand, at least 800,000 girls, some as young as 8, work as prostitutes.
Pakistan has up to 7.5 million children in modern slavery, the ILO reported. In India, several million children between ages 5 and 14 are in "chronic bondage" in agriculture, a million in construction, brick-making and quarry work, and several hundred thousand in carpet and jewelry industries, according to Kailash Satyarthi, chairman of South Asia Coalition on Child Servitude.
In Brazil, escravidade branca, or white slavery, is common in rural areas, while debt bondage-- enganche or "the hook"--is a problem in Peru's mines, the ILO said. Treated as "expendable," child slaves worldwide often get dangerous jobs. Education or prospects of betterment are nonexistent. Any semblance of childhood disappears.
Technology and Disease
Technological developments and new health plagues in the late 20th century are also leaving a lasting impact on children.
One of the worst manifestations was the 1993 birth in Moldova of a baby with two heads, two hearts, two lungs, two spinal cords but one set of limbs. Doctors blamed it on radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in neighboring Ukraine. Doctors in the area reported up to a 30% increase in birth defects as well as a dramatic rise in the incidence of thyroid cancer among children after Chernobyl.
Because technology now discerns gender, children elsewhere don't have a chance at life; thousands of Chinese and Indian women abort female fetuses in societies favoring boys.
The AIDS pandemic, spread globally in a relatively short time thanks to modern transportation, is both killing children and creating orphans.
Among the offspring of HIV-positive pregnant women, one out of three babies is likely to be infected and eventually die of AIDS; two will be orphaned when the mothers die, said Mechai Viravaidya, chairman of Bangkok's Population and Community Development Assn.
Uganda has produced 1.5 million AIDS orphans in the past decade. In Thailand, 10,000 pregnant, HIV-positive women in 1992 were expected to eventually produce 6,500 orphans--doubling in a year the total number of orphans under state care for other reasons. In 1993, pregnant and HIV-positive Thai women doubled to 20,000, Viravaidya said.
One of AIDS' most lasting legacies may be a world awash with a generation of orphans. A UNICEF report, "AIDS: The Second Decade," estimates nearly 10 million children will be orphaned by AIDS by 2000--a prediction some experts now believe to be conservative.
Yet children's problems at the close of the 20th century are most distinctive because they're largely preventable. Most of the 13 million childdeaths in 1992, for example, could have been avoided.
"Somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion children are still facing malnutrition, disease and death, mainly because we can't mobilize what we need to help them," MacCormack of Save theChildren said.
"It was understandable when we didn't have solutions. But now we know what to do. One of the greatest frustrations is to know technology and management are there to eliminate 60% to 70% of remaining child poverty at a reasonable cost, but the political will and public knowledge aren't there to make it happen."
And dangers grow as nations both big and small engage in economic and social triage. In 1993, for example, Washington eliminated aid to 21 states, many where children endure the worst conditions.
"We've hit a plateau in our ability to reduce many problems because we're using the same or fewer resources than in the past," Kloten said.
"Between resource problems and global change, the situation in many places will get worse before it gets better."
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1994