The Big Children’s Rights Post, Part 1

I guess I’m kicking off this blog with a pretty hard-hitting post. I’ve had this manifesto on why children’s rights is a necessary movement sitting on my computer for ages. This first part attempts to highlight the scope of violence against children, and in future posts I’ll ask what we can do about it. Content warning for violence, abuse, and rape.

Most people, I think, understand that children face more of most kinds of violence than adults do. And I think most people want to see children protected from violence and suffering. But it’s difficult to get at the root causes of the disproportionate violence that children face without understanding that the social norms we take for granted disempower children and put them in harm’s way. A lot of people seem to assume that children’s different capabilities (less upper body strength, for one thing) are the only reason why they face such disproportionate violence, but I hope by now feminism and the disability rights movement have given the lie to such ways of thinking. I invite readers to instead consider the possibility that our social norms might enable or even encourage this violence, and more importantly, the possibility that we might be able to change those norms to create a society that respects children and diligently guards their human rights.

First, the ugly facts. Children are abused, raped, assaulted, and murdered at higher rates than adults are. People under 18 make up about a quarter of the (US) population[1] but 44% of sexual assault victims[2]. In fact, about two-thirds of “teenage pregnancies” are caused by adult men[3]. As regards assault, there exist specific laws to exclude children from legal protection when their attacker is their parent, or someone acting in loco parentis such as a teacher. An Italian study found that 85% percent of people report having been hit by their parents by the time they reach adolescence[4], and even after the age of majority, younger people are more likely to experience assault[5]. Children are killed by their parents at the rate of about 1600 per year, and murder is the fourth leading cause of death among children. The overwhelming majority of these murders are committed by their parents. In the rare cases in which a minor kills a parent, their sentences are typically much harsher than parents who kill children, despite being minors[6].

(An aside: I haven’t done intense research into the accuracy of all these numbers; I’m sure a fuller investigation would lead me to make adjustments to the specific figures. But they’d probably go up more than down. For example, if you were to carefully examine the validity of the stat that “children are 44% of sexual assault victims”, you might notice that it’s probably an understatement of the problem. A child is much more likely than an adult to be in a situation where they are unable to get away from their rapist, and thus face repeated sexual assault rather than a single instance of violence. And like any other marginalized group, children face a lot of violence that isn’t ever recognized or documented to begin with.)

Of course, it’s not just the “big crimes” (it never is). Children face countless “smaller” violences every day. It’s legal and socially acceptable for adults to make permanent, purely cosmetic alterations to children’s bodies without their consent: ear piercing and intersex genital mutilation are two examples[7]. Several laws exist for the express purpose of allowing young people to be paid less than the minimum wage. A young worker may be paid as little as $4.25 per hour for the first three months of employment, and other laws exist to allow students to be paid less than minimum wage[8]. (And the type of paid labor that young people tend to perform, such as babysitting, is even explicitly exempt from federal minimum wage laws[9].) Children are denied the right to own property–even property given to children without passing through the hands of their parents can be stolen, tampered with, or destroyed if the parents so choose. Using spyware to invade another person’s privacy is seen as acceptable when the victim is a child[10]. Children are also subject to coercive schooling, which I’m sure on its own will be a topic for many future posts. Children who attempt to leave their living situations become “runaways”. If they are spotted by law enforcement, they may be dragged back to their former living situations without their consent. Non-parents who feed, house, and care for these children may be charged with a crime depending on the state law. And to top it off, children are barred from voting, and thus have no political voice with which to end any of these injustices.

Not only are parents legally allowed to physically assault their children, they can do so for virtually any reason. This results in countless ordinary freedoms being denied to children. The division of household labor is typically performed without children’s input or consent. Children can legally be prevented from leaving their own houses, even temporarily. Children can be prevented from having “unapproved” friends–in fact, they can be wholly denied a support network outside the family if their parents so choose.

The list could go on and on, but I want to address one particular point first. These smaller violences are certainly harmful in and of themselves: if someone forces you to go to school at 7:00am when your body is telling you you need to sleep until 8:00am, that’s harmful to you. But many of these smaller violences directly engender situations where more severe abuse can flourish.

Please take a moment to read this post about why victims of domestic violence stay with their abusers, and think about how being in a child’s situation would compound all those issues. The whole post is worth reading, but I’ll copy a few examples here:

2. “I’ll die without her.”
He lives in his girlfriend’s apartment. He’s unemployed, or minimally employed, and has no education or good experience on his resume. He has no friends besides her. He’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t know how he’ll get food without her help, much less navigate all the challenges of life. And if he leaves her, he’ll be leaving everything–she’ll destroy any of his stuff that he leaves behind, stalk him so he can’t stay at the same job, and even kill his pets. If he leaves her, he’s certain that he’ll end up living on the streets.

8. “Run away? Call the cops? I can’t even get away with sneezing!”
Her boyfriend controls every second of her time and every inch she moves. Whenever they’re apart she has to call him and check in constantly; whenever she leaves the house she has to tell him where she’s going and how long and why; he doesn’t let her think without telling him about it and getting his approval. And he enforces this–reading her mail, listening to her phone conversations, showing up randomly at her work or when she’s with friends (if she’s allowed to have any). When she’s not allowed so small a rebellion as using the wrong word, really rebelling against him seems impossible. She figures he’d catch her if she even thought about trying.

13. “I’ve learned to live in her system.”
He knows all the rules by now. As long as he always treats his wife with the utmost politeness and gentleness, and always has dinner ready before she comes home, always is up for sex when she wants it, and always lets her make the decisions, things are okay. He actually feels pretty safe when he’s being “good.” So it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with the relationship, because it goes great so long as he does as he’s supposed to.

And the most important point:

The one thing that isn’t on the list, anywhere, is “the victim is just weak and stupid.” Victims of abuse come in all types and lots of them really are flawed in big and small ways–but their reasons for staying with their abusers are not “just stupid.” They’re complicated, insidious, and saddest of all, sometimes right.

If you can’t legally leave your house, if you can’t own property, if it’s legal to assault you, if you would be paid less than minimum wage if you needed to work, if you must daily attend the school where your abuser has access to you–you are quite likely to become a victim of abuse. It’s not children’s fault, nor their inherent nature.

Children are not just weak and stupid.

By now it should be obvious that we as a society have an enormous problem regarding the way we treat children. I’m going to leave it at that for today–after all, the first step is admitting you have a problem. In my next post, I hope to address some of the ideas that pervade our language, media, and culture that devalue children, and offer concrete suggestions for ways to turn the tide.

[1] See for the statistic. In comparison to the rest of the world, the US has a relatively small youth population, as its birthrate is lower than the world average.
[3] Mike Males and Kenneth S.Y. Chew, “The Ages of Fathers in California Adolescent Births, 1993,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 86, No. 4, April 1996, pp. 565-568.
[4] (Under bullet point 7, the author of this article cites the Journal of Psychopathology 2007 for this statistic. I was not able to translate the Journal from Italian, so I am relying on the word of the author of this article.)
[6] (see the citations in this post)
[7] The mistreatment of intersex children is truly abhorrent. See for more information.


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