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The Conflicted Role of Religion in the 'Rights' of Children

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The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by all world nations EXCEPT Somalia and ... the United States. The United States signed the treaty but ratification prospects are dim, in part because of the concerns of religious conservatives. These center on the possible overriding of American laws by international ones, questions about whether the Convention might challenge homeschooling and the paramount rights of parents versus their children.

But leaving the mysteries of American politics aside, the question of child rights came up in a fascinating discussion last week in Washington, where the focus was on religion, children and violence.

UNICEF is among the leaders within the bevy of United Nations agencies that truly appreciates the vital and positive role that religious leaders and institutions play in protecting children. Almost every faith tradition -- Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and so on -- puts children in a special place. But when it comes to practical matters there are plenty of differing perspectives and traditions: What is best for orphans? The merits and demerits of corporal punishment? The authority of parents versus the state?

There are large and clear areas of common ground on which to build. When the central topics of fighting against the use of child soldiers, assuring that children are cared for when families become refugees, and fighting outright abuse of children are at issue, there is not only common cause but common passion that links secular and faith-inspired advocates of children. Drawing far more on the lessons of good practice and looking more systematically to the rich experience of faith-linked groups that work with children and families is a doable and important proposition.

But without cultural sensitivity, efforts to promote the rights of children can backfire. Insensitive campaigns can create a backlash against the core objectives of protecting children. For example, teaching children that they have rights without taking into account the context and what that means in practice (for example, what recourse they might have) can raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Parents and teachers may react negatively if they believe that the rights of children mean their own rights are eroded. And rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked so talking about one without the other is a recipe for misunderstanding and trouble.

Examples of a backlash against unqualified use of child rights language focused on Sierra Leone, where so much focus is going to children after the terrible conflicts there. Reintegrating child soldiers and helping to address the pain and suffering families have suffered is a demanding, all-hands job. What is ironic is that the problems often stem from over-enthusiasm: excited local officers who find the language and ideas of child rights so inspiring that they become ardent preachers, or children who have never had any possibility to dream and hear a new concept that offers them an unimagined future.

There are some important lessons to learn here. The language and concepts of human rights are truly a gift of progress. But they are not something that can be taken for granted. In many parts of the world, human rights are seen as western and, for some, rooted not in universal principles but in Judeo-Christian ethics. Their universality is something that needs to be a focus in our globalized world and will mean a constant refinement and sensitivity. And second, setting out an ideal is a long way from translating it into practice.

Making child rights into something that helps the children who need them most means hard, collaborative work by often unlikely partners. The faith-linked groups that may themselves cringe at the language of child rights are among the partners we need most to overcome the hesitations that stand between our ideals and the future reality of a world where children are both cherished and protected, challenged and cared for.