24 November 2023
Monday was World Children’s Day. It is a day that is celebrated around the world in recognition of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. So, I’ll say something about childhood.
If you ever get a chance, have a read of the Convention as it’s very helpful in understanding how a society that is fully focused on human rights needs to treat its children. The Convention sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.
But why was such a document necessary, given that the general view is that we all love children and that they are hardly ever consciously mistreated. We perceive children enjoying a stress free, idyllic life. They are seen as resilient and that they will cope with any unpleasantness that comes their way. Any mistreatment and abuse is seen as unusual and perpetrators as a fringe group. And anyway, the really bad stuff that happens to children happens elsewhere, certainly not in Australia.
Increasingly, reality, as unwelcome as it is, breaks through and sullies the perception of childhood as serene and blissful. The recently released Maltreatment Study showed us how frighteningly prevalent child abuse and maltreatment is in Australia.
Foodbank’s recent Hunger Report tells us of the many thousands of children experiencing hunger. More and more schools are providing breakfast and lunch programs so students can have enough food to help them get through the day.
Most of us in this room are aware of the three quarters of a million children living in poverty, the poor mental health statistics, educational underachievement and the destructive impact of domestic and family violence. In WA children as young as ten continue to be held criminally responsible and incarcerated in unacceptable circumstances.
Added to this is the increasingly sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood for financial gain. We have rings of perpetrators that create and sell images of innocent children as well as selling children for sexual exploitation.
Children account for 27% of all the human trafficking victims worldwide, and two out of every three victims are girls. These children are primarily used for forced labour and sexual exploitation. They are held in slave-like conditions without enough food, shelter or clothing, and are often severely abused and cut off from all contact with their families.
Please don’t believe that this only happens in some far away, hidden place. Human trafficking is alive and well in Australia with the Australian Federal Police having a strategic plan to address it.
Internationally, we regularly see the dire circumstance of thousands of children in refugee camps, participants in desperate migrant journeys and the innocent victims of war. The stark reality of what is happening currently in the Middle East show how vulnerable children are to the insensitivity and mindlessness of adults and our capacity for heartlessness.
The ideals of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are still very relevant. They are a necessary reminder that children are fellow citizens, active and contributing members of our societies. It clearly sets out what our obligations are and how a society that wants to honour and care for their children needs to act.
The sadness for us is that we seem to forget the interconnectedness of all things. That the violence that happens to others also impacts on each of us. That violence begets more violence and that caring creates the condition for more kindness. We need to remind ourselves that the suffering of a child in a refugee camp or one that is being held captive in Gaza is the same suffering that is experienced by an abused child in Australia. And that the anguish on our TV screens affects our collective hearts and our minds, even when we think it hasn’t.
Continual disregard of our fellow human beings, other creatures and the planet is a neglect of us all. We are together and, as unlikely as it may appear, we are one. When we forget this, immersing ourselves in our individualism we can create great harm, even if unintended.
What makes our work and your efforts so important is that each action of solidarity, genuine care and compassion has a meaning far beyond the immediate and solitary action. Those moments of benevolence remind us and our society of how wonderful it is when we care for one another and how starkly different it is when we don’t. But more than this, it contributes to the creation of a more understanding and caring world.
Please don’t underestimate this significant contribution. It’s a contribution that goes far beyond politics, statistics and service reports. It is an important counterbalance to that view of life which sees our lives simply as an opportunity for maximising self-interest and self-aggrandisement.
Each one of you stand for ideals that lead us beyond self-interest. You express the practical but also spiritual importance of caring for others. You stand for a world that believes in mutual respect and genuine regard of others and the world around us. How important that is.
In such a world children are truly cared for and the call to action and responsibility of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is respected and implemented. It has children living in an environment where their needs are seen, heard and responded to. It’s a world where their abuse, oppression and exploitation would end, their suffering minimised and their wellbeing enhanced.
Our Valuing Children Initiative is an attempt to remind us that such a world is possible, indeed necessary. Children are not just our future but our present. Their spontaneity, sense of fun, unabashed honesty and expressions of love remind us of what is truly important in life. They are very precious and valuable to us all.
Thank you for all your hard work during the year. Together we have helped thousands of adults and children to experience a better life. What an amazing achievement. Our efforts are genuinely focused on creating a healthier and more caring society. You can all feel justly proud of what you do and how you do.
As we approach Christmas and the festive season, my best wishes to you, your families and friends for a wonderful Christmas, an enjoyable end of year and a satisfying 2024.
Adj. Prof Tony Pietropiccolo AM