A major distinguishing characteristic of the civilized world is the recognition of human rights and the expanded conception of the idea of justice. These elements are enshrined in national constitutions, and afford all citizens the right to the access of resources and opportunities. However, a recent development is the increasing concern for the rights of minor members, especially children. Traditionally, children were often ignored as insignificant members of society, largely due to their lack of active participation in major decisions that defined their future. As such, what they received and experienced, and the kind of life they led was decided for them either by their parents, senior members of the family and to some extent, the governing authority. Nonetheless, gradual shifts in social lifestyles and the organization of communal life led to a significant change of societal and institutional attitudes towards children. Western societies were the first to witness the era of the 18th century enlightenment movement, whose proponents argued for the rights of the individual as opposed to a collective prioritization of societal demands. National constitutions were amended to protect the rights of individuals, which in effect improved the plight of children as well. Additionally, the introduction of formal education furthered the agenda of children’s rights in national and international debates. The latter is more pronounced today, through the formation of organizations that promote the welfare of children, such the UN’s United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF).
This notwithstanding, however, the condition of children has not improved on a uniform pattern globally. There exists a wide gap between the wealthy West and the impoverished third world countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and some sections of Eastern Europe and Latin America. Of the Western nations, the United States ranks as the most advanced nation in the world in regards to the promotion and protection of children’s rights. Indeed, the value of children in the US today shames even the status of adults in the third world countries. The glaring and saddening implication of this fact is the pathetic condition of children living in the third world. In an environment where even the rights of adults are grossly compromised, it could only be left to the imagination how serious the situation is for unconsidered, uncared for and generally neglected children. By highlighting on the living conditions and opportunities offered to children in the US and Africa, the paper seeks to discuss the wide gap of inequality between children in the developed nations and those in the third world countries.
Africa is widely famed as the cradle of poverty, suffering, oppression and unending strife. From the war raged Horn of Africa that extends from hot zone Darfur, volatile Eritrea and warring, stateless Somali to the hunger stricken Zimbabwe, militia infested Northern Uganda and Eastern Congo, Africa conjures the perfect image of a grieving continent. However, the situation of children is not singularly jeopardized by wars and hunger alone: in addition to the gnawing pain of deprivation and the horrors of death, their condition is aggravated by the institutionalization of their suffering. The greatest threat is posed by the existence of militias who forcefully recruit underage children as fighters to sustain their guerrilla insurgence. This is often occasioned by violence, kidnapping and torture, which is usually unreported; on the rare occasions it is captured by a foreign reporter on BBC or Al Jazeera, nothing could be done. Thus, the value of children in the third world is not merely compromised, but properly speaking, almost nonexistent. In Southern Sudan particularly, the problem of child abuse is not only a matter of a situation that cannot be controlled by the government, but also accompanied with the most horrifying torture experiences: rape, sodomy, cannibalism and forced labor.
On the other hand, the US presents a perfect example of a highly civilized society that values all citizens regardless their age. It could be argued that the foundation of this human rights-conscious culture is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees every American the right to the pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment. These values are promoted by the American constitution, which has been widely touted as the best legal document ever made by man. it does not only recognize the rights of individuals, children and adults alike, but also ensures that they are offered unlimited opportunities to enhance personal advancement. To begin with, the allocation of national resources to children’s causes captures the high regard of children in the American society. For instance, education is offered free of charge by the government, ensuring that every American child has affordable access to quality education. America is one of the few nations of the world that invests heavily on their younger generations. It is home to most of the best educational institutions in the world, and the pace-setter in academic circles. The American Dream, whether real or illusionary is reflected in the quest to educate children and increase their potential to exploit opportunities and lead comfortable lives. On the contrary, the third world is forever mired in abject poverty and hunger, and as such, it is nearly impossible to guarantee every child affordable access to education. In any case, education in most third world countries is regarded as a secondary need to be satisfied after the more pressing need for food, security and shelter. Nonetheless, this does not imply that the priotized needs of food, shelter and security are met satisfactorily: malnutrition is at its worst in Africa. This is evidenced by the high reliance on relief food, poor child health and high rates of insecurity. The failure by families and governments to provide the most basic of human needs, therefore, indicates the low value that children command in third world countries. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that children are generally undervalued in poor countries, but rather reflect the inability of governments and families alike to meet their needs and provide opportunities that could improve their lives.
Perhaps a better exemplification of conscious negligence of children in third world countries is presented by the high prevalence of child labor (Bass 15). Africa is primarily an agriculture based economy. As the only means of subsistence, farm labor is crucial in ensuring food production. However, due to its limited technological knowledge base and low level of industrialization, labor is largely manual, and not mechanized as in most developed countries. The implication of this is that human labor is the primary factor of production, “fueled by high unemployment and low wages” (Schmitz, et al 154). Moreover, most African communities have historically valued children as a cheap source of labor, which partly explains the high birth rates. Thus, children are not valued for their sake, but for the cheap labor they provide. Ironically, this cultural attitude undermines their value instead of improving it. Effectively, they become tools of achieving communal labor needs. Indeed, child labor is unquestioned in Africa, since it is regarded as a norm to have children till the fields, collect firewood, fetch water from rivers and assist with most household chores.
In America, on the contrary, children are protected from any physical exertion that results from hard work. The American family unit is socially organized in such a way that children are not only integrated into the ideals of a model family, but also financially secure that children are spared the experience of sweating it out to put food on the table. The economic factor also comes into play in inheritance practices, since the African system is very discriminative against the girl-child (Kevane 126). Only sons get to inherit from their parents, while girls are not considered at all. Instead, they are regarded in terms of property, since they are usually married off to get dowry. Related to this practice is the reluctance by most parents to write wills for their children, since they are considered unqualified for automatic inheritance. This starkly contrasts with the American inheritance system, which highly values children.
Children in the US are further protected by a lifestyle culture that generally favors children. Family planning in America ensures that children are well-cared for, as opposed to Africa where families struggle to raise several children. Giving birth alone in the US is preceded with careful planning and saving for delivery, nursing and healthcare. Health insurance coverage and childcare which is popular in the US is nonexistent in Africa as in other poor continents. Similarly, the presence of many childcare centers in America ensures that children are given the best possible care in the absence of their parents. In Africa, however, children are left to the care of their older siblings, thereby promoting a vicious circle of child labor.
The American lifestyle is characterized by a high regard of leisure, especially for children. America is the biggest market of children’s toys, indicating the value attached to the happiness of children. They are even bought pets, something unimaginable in a third world setting. For instance, when the Obamas moved to the White House, it took considerable time to get a pet for Sasha and Malia. It is not that it really mattered in any therapeutic sense, so to speak, but implied a high concern for their health as well.
In conclusion, the value of children in the developed nations, particularly the US is far above that of children from the third world. The factors of culture, social institutions and government policies determine how children are regarded and cared for in both settings. Culture and tradition undermines the condition of children in poor countries, while a recognition of fundamental human rights promote the status of children in the developed world. This explains the inequalities seen in the way children are treated in the two contexts.
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