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Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2007: “And how are the children?

Closing keynote address by Mercedes Roman

Sunday, March 12


A printable PDF version of this talk is available here.


The following address was given by Mercedes Roman, former Maryknoll lay missioner, at the closing event of the 2007 Ecumenical Advocacy Days. The weekend’s theme was “And how are the children?” -- Mercedes’ many years of work for children made her an excellent choice to give the final message to the participants. She currently lives and works in Ecuador as the Latin American Coordinator for the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) and the UN Representative for Defense for Children International (DCI).

Peace and grace to all and each of you.

I am deeply honored to address you, a group of highly moral, committed people, whose concerns and commitment are grounded in religious roots and ethics, who have dedicated your lives to building the Reign of God through understanding and concrete love. You are here, in your persistence to construct the Reign of God with hope, knowing that it is built little by little, confronting the odds and rejoicing with every achievement.

Most of you know more than I about the Scriptures. Nevertheless I dare to bring you an episode from Luke, Mark and Mathew, and present a reflection on it: Luke 18: 15-17. “Then they also brought infants to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked the children. But Jesus called the children to Him and said: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the Kingdom of God. I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.’” Mark adds: “Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.”

Matthew’s version is a little different: “Whoever humbles himself as a child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives a little child in My name receives me,” and he adds: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it will be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.”

How much we have scandalized children, how much churches need to repent regarding children, not only for what has been done to them, but for all that has not been done for them!

No wonder that the disciples rebuked the children. They were the product of a patriarchal society where women and children had little value, where they were worth as much as their usefulness to men. We know how much Jesus scandalized his listeners with his feminism. Consistent with the social structures of that time the Scriptures bring us very little about children, but these passages tell us a lot. Jesus presents the child as the model to follow – pure, innocent, not pretending but being – as the model for attaining a space in heaven. Maybe that is why when we reach old age, we become like children, because we need to reach that stage of honesty and simplicity to enter heaven. But this passage on children is directed to adults. “Let the children come to me.” Now, for us Christians Jesus is the Way, so in other words “do not corrupt them on their way to becoming adults,” and do not dare to harm them. Very few times is Jesus stronger than when he is referring to our duty of not scandalizing children in any way.

Twenty-four years ago, my husband Tom Bamat and our sons Joseph (three years old at that time), and Nicolas (six months old) joined Maryknoll as lay people and had the privilege of being sent to my home country [Ecuador] as brand new missioners. My first assignment was to work in a project to teach women about their rights, in a very densely populated poor neighborhood in the south of the capital city. I had many ideas about women’s rights but no clue about how to communicate the abstract notion of human rights to women whose lives were full of problems and deprivations, who barely knew how to read and write, and struggled for the economic survival of their families. I started by being their friend, knitting with them, laughing and partying with them, selling the crafts they made, until they had the confidence to talk about their problems, pains and struggles, and the abuse they were habituated to enduring. Then, I only needed to help them to see that most of their deprivations came from an unjust social structure. I could show them that their daily deprivations needed to be understood as deprivations of basic human rights.

Although they personally felt so many needs and deprivations, their main concerns were their children. They wanted a better life for their children. Thy also felt that it was extremely difficult to cope with the challenges of fast changing social and cultural patterns between their generation and that of their children. They felt confused regarding their children’s education and the relationship with them. While it will not surprise you, most of their husbands or male companions, if not completely absent, had little role in their children’s daily care and education, and were abusive toward the women and the children. These women became not only my friends, but my teachers. They unveiled for me an extremely abusive situation for children: from the lack of a real breakfast before going to school, to repeated patterns of sexual abuse. When the time came to evaluate our work, they told me: “Mercedes, we understand now about rights, we know that we are persons and we have rights. But at the same time we feel that somehow it is too late for us. Work for our children, work for the children.” I was totally obedient to them and started to put my energies on children’s rights. Later on I founded the Ecuadorian Section of Defense for Children International, and its first research was on domestic sexual abuse.

I saw that after all, the source of rights violations and abuse of women and children were the same, a social system which over-privileged few at the detriment of most, and a patriarchal culture difficult to overcome; power was not shared but abused.

It was the mid-‘80s, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was in its drafting process. Through a friend and former teacher, I was contacted by Defense for Children International, and was invited to its first seminar on children’s rights in Latin America. This organization was created to coordinate civil society participation in the drafting process of the Convention and to lobby governments to ensure that the Convention would become a reality. The Convention was adopted on November 20, 1989 and quickly became the most ratified UN treaty. Sadly, as you know, the U.S. is the only country – with a capacity for doing so – that has not ratified this Convention, a document which for many people working with and for children, has become a guide, an essential reference, a sketch of the future we seek.

So, in the light of the Convention, HOW ARE THE CHILDREN?

I can say that especially in the last three decades, in working with children there has been some progress toward the Reign of God in many areas: on water and sanitation UNICEF indicates that there has been significant development, and I agree. The same is true with regard to preventable diseases and access to schooling. People understand more than before the benefits of education and make huge sacrifices to educate their children, and while those working for Africa and elsewhere rightly state that education remains limited and inadequate, parents and governments now understand that education is a door for personal and country development.

We also know more about children and their needs, and can respond more wisely. A perspective of children as persons with rights is growing, and governments are more and more placing children not only in their welfare agendas but in their development agendas. We know more about harmful practices inflicted on children, and people are willing to fight against them. Some of these achievements are possible in part because we are more aware, we have a new vision regarding children, as persons with rights. Governments know that where the status of women advances, the status of children advances. These and other achievements are significant, and many are due to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Of course the shortcomings worldwide are immense in all areas, and while it is possible to see progress in some parts of the world, others remain the same or worse. While the estimated number of children under 14 living with HIV worldwide is 2.3 million, the estimate for Sub-Saharan Africa alone is two million. And while the estimate of children under 18 orphaned by AIDS is 15.2 million for the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone it is 12 million.

We also witness new kinds of rights violations or the intensification of old ones. New communication technologies have provided new means for the trafficking of children and their sexual abuse. Latin American children, especially those in Central America, with their families forced move from rural to urban areas, have lost identity. They have found a new kind of poverty, can’t find a place and respect in the new society, and join violent gangs. The drug business has intensified with children being its primary victims. Radio, TV and the internet are powerful tools that have manipulated the minds of children at will, with consumerism and early active sexuality the most visible consequences (findings in Latin America indicate that many children are sexually active at 12.)

The new culture, aggressively transmitted to children, has not dialogued with the culture of their parents. Older generations find themselves overwhelmed and disoriented. Parents need to know that the world has changed and their children cannot remain overprotected as our generation was. Children now have a tremendous mass of information, largely surpassing not only the information that their parents had when they were children, but often the information their parents currently have. Past and current cultures regarding children need to be in dialogue on the basis of human rights, while clearly accepting that the counterpart to rights is responsibilities.

The most rebellious of my three children, the one who frequently argued back with his rights, the one that I felt needed more boundaries while growing up, went to serve as a volunteer in a drug rehabilitation program in Central America when he was 21. He came back extremely critical of the program that he was working with, which did not apply clear rules, and did not establish consequences for dangerous behavior while the children were supposedly in rehabilitation. The program’s philosophy talked about unconditional love for their children, and my son commented: “What love is more unconditional that that of parents for their children, and because of that love they need to apply boundaries for their children’s behavior?” I smiled and said, “That sounds like your mom talking.” It was a rewarding moment in my life. I felt that I had been able to transmit to my children a proper concept of children’s rights.

In my view, the children’s rights movement is the new way of establishing positive relations between children, parents, adults and public policies. It is the product of four important facts of the past century: 1) the scientific advances in medicine that show the preventable nature of diseases that cut down or impair children’s lives in early stages, 2) the scientific work that shows that the first five years of life are crucial for physical and emotional development, 3) the abrupt urbanization process that leaves children uprooted and unprotected (as in the case of the massive presence of children surviving in the streets in Latin America and now Africa), and 4) the women’s movement that challenges patriarchy and unfair power relations, primarily at home.

All the above was expressed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which put together former UN treaties and provisions on children, with a new twist: a rights perspective instead of simple welfare, giving direct responsibilities to governments for the well being of children and their families, placing the best interest of the child above any other, and calling for civil society and international cooperation to support and collaborate on the Convention’s implementation. What is new in the Convention in terms of substantive provisions is the set of articles in favor of children’s participation, their right to present their view on matters that concern them, including in court. This has been the most controversial set of rights for those who oppose the Convention here in the U.S.

Regarding children’s right to participation, let me go back to Jesus, through Luke 3: 41-52:

“Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when He was 12 years old, they went up according with festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After threes days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him: ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.’ And he said to them: ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

Please tell me what this is about, if not about children’s participation. There are many forms of teaching the children and fostering their development. One of them is letting children participate accordingly to their development and capacity to respond to concrete challenges.

Making the right to participation of children the substantive matter in the campaigns against the Convention on the Rights of the Child in this country, shows a patriarchal view of family relations, and an intolerance of the fact that the world has changed radically. On the other hand, conservatives do not like the United Nations. To me this implies a self-perception of the U.S. as the world ruler, one that cannot tolerate an international body regulating relations among all countries.

While I was working in the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, it became commonplace to receive letters from donors influenced by the campaigns against the Convention, complaining about our support for U.S. ratification. The complaints were rooted in a series of false perceptions stemming from misleading information, such as the notions that the Convention favors abortion, is against families, and undermines the rights of parents. These perceptions have been exported abroad, after all the religious right has enough money to be a transnational operational.

But why does the Convention matter? Why is it important that the U.S. stop being the only country that has not ratified the Convention? It is true that most provisions of the Convention are already provisions in U.S. law, but that was the case for other nations as well. Beyond what U.S. legislation says about children, the Convention would be an advance in favor of U.S. children, and would unify U.S. legislation. If the Convention were ratified by Congress, the U.S. government would have to work towards health care for all children in the U.S., and compulsory quality education for all children would be a federal duty. Current welfare provisions in the country would be not only benefits but rights, and substantial changes would occur especially in certain areas like juvenile justice administration, children’s rights to participation, and others.

At the international level, the U.S. would join the rest of the world, affirming an important reality: that we live in a global village, that borders are more and more artificial entities. This is widely accepted already when it comes to money, goods, the free movement of business and its transactions; but it is not accepted for people. We had in this conference an exchange of views on migration. The work of migrants is needed but not properly regulated in law and they have to live with the stigma of being “illegals.” Immigrants come here above all to be able to provide food, housing and education for their children, but their children are left behind with all the problems that come up when parental care is lacking. International legal tools like the Convention can be an instrument to help implement the right to family reunification.

We are facing a new world. The historical process creating a global village has been sped up by technology, but our minds and perceptions have not changed at the same speed. We resist the new challenges. We resist thinking of the children of Iraq as our children, and we ignored that long before the war; they were deprived of water and sanitation by the bombs dropped by the U.S. military forces. We resist thinking that the children of Sub-Saharan Africa are our children, and do not fight enough against U.S. pharmaceutical policies, which do not allow affordable medicines to halt the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We resist thinking that Pakistani children are our children and continue to buy products made with the exploitation of their labor. We resist thinking that Thai children are our children and do not scream out for their victimization by sex tourism, which includes U.S. citizens as victimizers. We resist thinking of the children of migrant workers as our children, and accept the idea that their parents are “illegal workers” who cannot bring their families here because they will use our social service systems.

Allow me to go beyond our ecumenism and bring you the words of a Hindu spiritual thinker and poet, Rabindranath Tagore: “Every child born comes with a message that God has not yet despaired of humankind.” With these words the Declaration of the Global Network of Religions for Children begins, and it continues: “The ultimate and inviolable dignity of the child is understood to be rooted in reality by each religion in its own terms. Thus, the reality of the child expresses for each religion in its own way the mystery and meaning of human existence. Together, people of religious conviction agree that every child is promise, sacred gift, and pledge of the future. Our diverse religious visions shape our approaches to the child; they call us to repentance, hope, and commitment.”

Thanks to the open spirit of Maryknoll, while working in the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns I was able to participate in and contribute a significant portion of my time to the Global Network of Religions for Children. I was involved from the time of its initial planning process. For me it has been a rewarding experience. In dialogue with other religions, I could understand better my own particular faith tradition, and feel proud of it. I am not completely proud of my Church, I don’t think that many are, but I feel proud of its commitment to the poor, to the needy. I have understood and consciously embraced my own spirituality.

The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, referring to Christianity, says that “spirituality is a way of being Christian,” thus a particular way of approaching the world and its challenges, a way to dialogue with God in reference to others, to the community and to the world. The agenda of Ecumenical Advocacy Days says to me clearly that your spirituality has embraced the world, a world that is broken and is not only Christian, a world with many faiths and cultural traditions that we need to approach with respect, embracing the differences and knowing that we are a single humanity, a global village.

Regarding children, let’s dialogue with Congress people for the issues that you have prepared for, but also for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This country needs to consciously join the global village, needs to ratify international treaties and be a party to them. It is truly surrealistic that this is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a wonderful tool in the work for children worldwide, in the work of the global village. Congress needs to hear your voice in this regard as well. The campaign against the Convention has bombarded Congress with letters. It is necessary to counteract that campaign and overcome it.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; defend the rights of all those who have nothing. Speak up and judge fairly, and defend the rights of the [poor and needy] children.” Proverbs 31:8-9 NCV

I would like to conclude by going back to Tagore: “Every child born comes with a message that God has not yet despaired of humankind.” Let’s say to God, our beloved Father and Mother of all, that yes, we are worthy of children, that God should not despair of us, because we will indeed strive to take care of them. 

Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2007

March 12, 2007

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