Fri, 09 May 2003

Investing in children

Facts presented at the sixth ministerial consultation of the East Asia and Pacific region, which ended on Wednesday in Denpasar, make it clear that children continue to be the objects of abuse and neglect at the hands of adults.

The latest reports published by Unicef and the Indonesian government reveal, among other things, that children in this region feature prominently in cases of human trafficking and exploitation, either sexual or otherwise. This is the case despite the fact that many nations in the region, Indonesia included, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

While recognizing progress, for instance in the area of education, delegations from 26 countries reported that crimes such as the trafficking of children, mainly girls, for labor, sexual exploitation and forced marriage continued to take place. Delegates issued the "Bali Consensus" in which they pledged greater support for the region's children.

In an interview with this newspaper, chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Jaap E. Doek, said that in the case of young victims of sexual exploitation, finding a way out was not impossible.

While he confirmed that disclosed cases of sexual exploitation, including for Indonesia, were likely the tip of the iceberg, or only the "camel's nose", he said the demand for children as sexual objects had declined in areas where governments sent a clear message that perpetrators faced legal consequences, a case in point being Sri Lanka.

Our own government's report at the meeting said only a few cases of pedophilia had been processed in the courts, while reports of such crimes had been found in major cities such as Medan, Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.

In the meantime, human trafficking is only one of the plights children in the region face. The condition of Indonesia's children has worsened since the onset of the economic crisis in 1997, as reflected in the latest available data. An increasing number of children in the country face malnourishment, have been forced to drop out of school, live on the streets or work in dirty and dangerous jobs while their parents strive to make ends meet.

The average Indonesian child, the country report says, "spends two and a half months a year with a cough, 40 days a year with a fever and two weeks a year with diarrhea".

Basic health services have suffered since the crisis, contributing, along with other factors, to "a lost generation in the long run", the document says. As cited by President Megawati Soekarnoputri, 10 million of our children, according to the latest available data, do not even live to see their fifth birthday.

Children also continue to be part of our refugee population fleeing conflict areas. In Aceh, children have repeatedly emerged on lists of civilians caught in the cross-fire, even as more military operations in the province await and advocates of such operations emphasize that all will be done to ensure minimum "collateral damage".

Recent victims included two girls in Bireun -- Ina Rahmati, 10, who was killed, and her friend Fitriana, 12, who was seriously wounded.

As the Denpasar talks closed, a report from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) revealed that thousands of Indonesia's children do not even have the basic right of citizenship, having been born stateless among families living along the Indonesian-Papua New Guinea border. Now "forgotten people", the ICJ report said, the families fled military operations over the past two decades.

It must be noted that not only has Indonesia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, but last year a law on child protection was finally passed after the draft had gathered dust for years in the legislature.

All this should be enough to help us implement the UN's "Millennium Development Goals", which include reducing child mortality rates and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. But to get adults to act on a situation, even when it concerns life and death, one must talk in terms of money.

Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy thus hit the right note when she urged us to invest in our children. "The eradication of poverty, the fostering of peace, the nurturing of human potential, all start with one thing: Investing in children," she said at the Denpasar forum.

It does not take an economist to grasp that a large portion of the state budget is at present allocated to paying the debts of recalcitrant businesspeople, and that remaining funds continue to be subject to corruption -- making any statement of "investing" in children on our part mere rhetoric.

A prerequisite for ensuring "a world fit for children", in the parlance of the UN campaign, is to learn how to place the needs of the young at the center of policy-making, as a number of earlier international meetings on children have pointed out.

Indonesia now has the renewed support of our East Asia and Pacific neighbors in saving our children. But distracted as our policymakers are by next year's elections, we sincerely hope that they will still find the time to consider the interests of the next generation.