4 June is the United Nations’ International Day of Innocent Children Victims of Aggression
12 June is the United Nations’ World Day Against Child Labour
The most poignant pictures and stories of cruelty and injustice are those in which children are the victims. Recently, we have heard of the children killed in the shelling of Ukraine and of the cruelties they have faced when fleeing from their nation. In some parts of Africa and elsewhere, too, children are kidnapped to become slaves or forced to become child soldiers.
We have also responded to the pitiful images of children being forced to work in mines. They recall the effect that Charles Dickens had in nineteenth-century England with his depiction of children being used as chimney sweeps. Hundreds of millions of children throughout the world, most of them in developing societies, are still forced to work today.
In Australia, we have also been made painfully aware of the number of children in our own society who have been victims of domestic violence in their families and of sexual abuse in churches and in domestic settings. Their stories have shown us that they can experience the harmful effects of their mistreatment felt throughout their whole lives.
It is appropriate that in May two days are set aside to consider how the rights of children are violated. The dedication of June 4 draws attention to children who are victims of aggression, particularly in war. The second, which flows out of a United Nations resolution on the rights of the child, focuses on children who are forced to work in ways that threaten their health or their development into healthy and capable adults.
To see cruelty inflicted on children whether through aggression or the imposition of work beyond their capacity reminds us that not only the children themselves but all human beings are precious and command our respect. People do not have value only if they can work, are well-behaved, are useful to the family or state economy, fight on the right side of an armed struggle, or can be exploited for the others’ designs. Children deserve respect because they are human beings like us. They demand special respect because they need our care if they are to grow into the human beings they are called to be. These principles are central to our accompaniment of young people at Jesuit Social Services. To be treated disrespectfully, as often has been their fate in families and institutions, is horrifying because it risks spoiling something sacred and vulnerable.
Not all child labour is harmful, of course. Small children like to help in household chores and to be part of the family. Later on, they can be expected to contribute to the family through the little jobs they undertake alongside their studies. Children, however, should not be expected to do work that is beyond their strength. They must not be required to spend long hours at work that leaves no time for play, for rest or for study. Nor should they be assigned heavy tasks of lifting or digging, nor be placed in such as dangerous situations as working in mines or on building sites, nor in places directly damaging to health, such as working with toxic chemicals. Nor should they be forced into positions that deny their human dignity, such as being sold into slavery or forced into prostitution. All these things fail to respect the dignity of the child and impede their growth into a full humanity.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.