You may have been shocked by the stories of Vijay, Joseph and Dinah. That anyone should have to live this way is disturbing, but it is particularly harrowing because they are children. This adds a special poignancy to their stories.
How should we respond to these stories?
With disbelief, pity, compassion or outrage? Whichever of these emotions resonates with your response, we hope that these stories have compelled you to think about the plight of these children and reflect upon what can be done to help them. We also hope that you will be motivated to become involved in helping these children - and others like them - become their own agents of change, and alter their destinies.
But let’s think about our attitudes to children and childhood in order to understand why there are so many children like Vijay in India, Dinah in Peru, and Joseph in Zambia and the wider developing world.
We in the West tend to be quite sentimental about children and childhood. As adults we reflect upon the freedom from responsibility and fun we had as children. When we become parents, we aspire to give our own children similar freedoms, but also to give them the material things that we perhaps did not have then. For many parents in Britain, this is possible because we have surplus income to buy the latest Nike trainers or Playstation games. Such giving is pleasurable and can be said to demonstrate our love for our children. We also expect our children to be educated until their mid-teens, and not to have to work until then.
Children in the developing world are loved just as deeply, but because livelihoods are fragile for the poor, children are expected to work to contribute to the family livelihood from an early age. In rural areas this takes the form of young boys looking after livestock, or helping in the fields, particularly at harvest time. For young girls, there are domestic duties around the house and caring for younger siblings. In the cities, children work in the informal economy, carrying people’s shopping, cleaning shoes, running errands, picking through waste heaps for things to resell, selling small items and even in street theatre. The children - largely - do not resent this, because all their friends do the same and it is the norm, and their contribution to the family livelihood is appreciated.
This leads me to say that our attitudes to children and childhood are socially constructed. By this I mean that different societies and cultures define children and childhood differently, depending upon the social context that envelops them. Thus, while children are loved throughout the world, how this manifests itself is tempered by the very different social setting. In the developing world, poverty means that most families are poor. They do not have spare income to spend on luxuries for their children. Moreover, families in the developing world are much larger than in the developed world because not all children will survive to adulthood, and because the labour of children can be critical in supporting fragile livelihoods. Children are also expected to care for their aged parents in the absence of a welfare system in most developing countries (and - as in the case of Joseph - to take on caring for the whole family should the parents die). Large families in the developing world are a symptom of poverty, not the cause of poverty, and children working, a necessity, not cruelty.
Against this very different context, where children have economic value in the developing world, as well as being loved for themselves, it is not very surprising that there are so many children like Vijay.
We perhaps shouldn’t be shocked by this, as a hundred and fifty years ago, things were not very different in Britain. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when Britain was going through the industrial revolution, children worked in the cotton mills of Lancashire, down the mines of Yorkshire, and up the chimneys of Britain’s fine houses. Dickens’ novels captured the reality of life for many children in Victorian Britain. While social reformers decried the conditions and sought to legislate for change, few contested the families’ right to send their children out to work. In many ways, the levels of development in developing countries today are on a par with Victorian Britain. Poverty and underdevelopment makes children’s labour essential.
Parents in the developing world do recognise the value of education in teaching skills and providing opportunities for their children, but they often cannot afford to excuse the children from their daily duties, and/or lack the income to pay for school. Some poor families will make sacrifices to send a child to school in the hope that this child will win paid employment and turn the family’s fortunes around. This will nearly always be a son, rather than a daughter. This probably sounds harsh, but while there is son preference in many cultures, favouring the boy is also a strategic decision. A son will retain the family name and is likely to stay with the family, bringing a wife to the family home when he marries. A daughter will likely leave the family home when she marries, taking her education to better her husband’s family. Again, the parallels with Victorian Britain are striking.
The work of Sport Relief is seeking to give children the opportunities that education can bring. By either directly paying for schooling as in the case of Vijay; providing family support to free Joseph to go to school, or helping to reduce the need for work for children like Dinah, they are seeking to expand the horizons of these children and allow them to maximise the capacity they have already shown. What comes across so strikingly from the stories of Dinah, Vijay and Joseph, is their vitality, ingenuity and eternal hope. Where better to start than with the young, who have a lifetime to act as agents of change in the development of their communities?