One day I’ll get to that slowly receding retirement age. Hard-etched stereotypes tell me there will be certain expectations when I get there. I will have angry letters to write to council, dinners to start before the evening news kicks off and wistful reflections to cast about that young people have never had it so good.
Actually I hope the last of those will be true. In my short medical career around kids’ hospitals one of the most inspiring features is the resolute focus on improving the recognition of children as unique individuals with distinct rights. There is no better example of this than the recent release of the statement on the Rights of the Dying Child which defines these vital standards with such clarity. Perhaps we examine the value of a life hardest when chance bears a snarl rather than leaving us to easy joys.
The easy conclusion when reading something on the lot of children on a digital device scarcely imagined a generation ago is that progress for the rights of children is assured. Those same devices lead us easily to enough information to check that. It doesn’t stack up.
Whether in conflicts from South Sudan to Syria, or during actions by terrorists in places like Nigeria, children are increasingly not just collateral statistics of grown-up violence. They are the targets. In the conflict in Gaza there are two sides both destroying the next generation. The death toll exceeds 1300 and children are bombed while they sleep.
The Australian Commissioner to the UN recently noted that beyond the horror of militias recruiting child soldiers, eight government armed forces do this. Stories of child sexual abuse continue to emerge to shock. Despite progress millions of children under the age of 5 die every year and UNESCO report that 57 million children do not have a school to attend. Can we say that things will automatically be better for all these children?
So clearly we must start looking further afield to advance the case for the rights of children. Except that the most recent report from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare points out that there are still significant issues of inequality in children’s health to address in Australia. Indigenous children still have a rate of chronic ear infection 3 times higher than that deemed a massive health problem by the World Health Organisation. Childhood mortality rates in some areas are equivalent to Libya. 7.3% of children in Australia are living below the poverty line. That’s almost 600,000 children. The interim report of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse points out that children remain at risk.
Most disturbing are the stories emerging from the Human Rights Commission inquiry into the bipartisan morass created by detention of children seeking asylum. This is a policy which sees children trapped in an environment that fails to provide for their basic needs. Referring to themselves by number, scarred by post-traumatic stress disorder and undertaking self-harm at disturbing rates they are so unable to access adequate health care that it emerged in earlier reports that a child is losing vision in an eye for lack of some glasses.
Then today, amongst the distressing further stories of sexual assault and serious mental health issues being shared by professionals who have either worked in these detention centres or visited as part of the review, more serious allegations emerged. Psychiatrist Peter Young described being asked to remove some of the most damning evidence of mental health problems in children from formal reports. Departmental alarm led them to try and find a big enough carpet to sweep the dirt out of sight.Any doctor in New South Wales seeing a child in a situation equivalent to these detention centres would be required to notify community services. The legal guardian for these children is the minister. At what point do we stop standing by?
Childhood should be a time of wonder. It should allow the exploration of the miracles of the every day to inspire a future life. Unless all kids can do that there is a need to focus on real progress. Everything we are hearing now says that must start with Australia, but not end there.
The thing about saying that kids have it easy is that it is supposed to be true. It is supposed to be something to say with quiet pride. It is not supposed to be a delusion.