Tuesday, June 03, 2008

P.S. The Children

With children hogging the limelight in 2007, and not for all the right reasons, Fikri Jermadi looks into the reasons why, and sees a definite future for them...

Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted.”
Garrison Keillor, author

DAD: HELP FIND MY LITTLE GIRL” “YEAR 6 PUPIL FOUND HANGED”
In a lot of ways, it has been an annus horribilis when it comes to our children. The headline grabbers seems to have been largely negative in nature. With abuses in schools, both by teachers and children, cases of kidnapping and suicide, there are a lot more downs than ups.


Has it always been like this?

Numbers Game
The first impression says no. However, the numbers do speak a certain truth. The first half of the year revealed statistics of of over a hundred and fifty children under the age of seven who were abused. In a third of the cases, they are parents of the children themselves. According to statistics posted on Shelterhome's website, the previous years have seen even sharper increases in crimes against children. In 2001, there were slightly over 1000 cases; that figure rose sharply to 1656 in 2004.

“It is a situation that can become normal in our lives,” said James Nayagam, executive director for the children welfare organisation Shelter, in an interview with The Star. “In typical Malaysian manner, we only take action when something happens. Only after people die tragically are issues raised.”

But why is it this year, of all the years? Is this to say that, generally speaking at least, Malaysians have been different before this? That we have always prevented rather than cured? I don't think so. Such cases, not just with children, but with others, have always been happening. Mother Nature groans its displeasure by landsliding and bringing areas of Highland Towers, Wangsa Maju and Bukit Antarabangsa to the ground, yet we still plough on with construction of hillside apartments and houses.

We don't even have to go too far or too extreme for that. Our beloved Prime Minister, in diagnosing the high number of reported crime last year, encouraged the implementation of even more CCTVs to be installed. Once again, the point given the spotlight, is one that is intended to catch people in the act, rather than one that prevents the crime (although of course, if a CCTV is around, one might think twice about committing such acts). In fairness, he did advocate stronger information links between the police and society at large, but it's not the point given much attention by the national media. And thus, not the point given much attention by the public at large.


Ah, the media. The media's role can't be discounted for their role in this, the headlines potential purveyors of fear. “We see the newspapers paying so much attention to the Nurin case,” said Raflly B. Nann from the Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation. “I can understand this, since the killer has not been caught.”


At the end of the day, the statistics are mere numbers that is reported. No matter the number of cases being reported, the amount would still be much higher than it should be. Bearing in mind that these are only the number of cases reported. Many incidents go unreported, because of fear, intimidation, threats, and in some cases, protection of the family honour.

Family honour, my ass.

Old School
School pride also plays a part. The earlier part of the year, the newspapers are peppered with words such 'student' and 'abuse' just on the first page alone. Stories of how a primary school headteacher slapped not one, not two, but 22 Year Four pupils for failing to hand in their homework came to our attention. As did the case of not 22, but 170 students forced to sit in a pond as punishment for clogging up the toilets with their sanitary pads. A student swearing in class? Here's another slap for you. Then a 7 year old boy in Kuantan was attacked by his older schoolmate, who had been slapped on the wrist earlier in the year? Honey, call the police. “People may think I’m being unreasonable,” said the boy's father, Arif Sharif, “but they should remember that it was my son who was injured and traumatised.”

It seems that for a long time, such incidents were kicking back the Prime Minister's speeches all the way to the second page, taking over the front page podium. It became a hot topic for a while, as the nation witnessed both students and teachers deliver their stinging rebukes on one another. Perhaps a cartoon by Lat captured the moment best: a 'before' picture of a student and teacher walking to school, and an 'after' picture of the same student and teacher, only this time they each have their own lawyer. It's not enough that the milk in their canteens turned sour.

I suppose the nature of that particular outcry can be understood. After all, beyond the family, teachers and schools are generally accepted as one of the major influences of a child's life. I mean, the kids are already being corrupted from MTV, which infuses them with Western culture, or with The Golden Compass, which can convert people, apparently. So when news of teachers alleging to have offered RM15 to students to keep quiet about their 'private tutoring' sessions come to light...well, you can imagine the outrage.

But, within the bigger picture, things could've been a lot worse.


When Death Comes Knocking
For the longest time, not a day passed by without the mention of Nurin somewhere in the media. Even today, the name warrants a reminder to parents everywhere to buckle up, and tighten the leash on their children ever more. One suspects that within the next years, even, the death of Nurin Jazlin Jazimin will strike sympathy from the public.

"There are many other cases out there that warrants attention,” admitted Raflly, “but we need to start thinking about methods of prevention, how to ensure that this doesn't happen in the future, rather than just look at the statistics and think, 'Oh, this is bad.'”


Change is also at the forefront of the Subashini suicide case, who apparently committed the deed over her poor exam results. “This is sad,” said the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein.


But it is not just sad, for sadness does not capture and convey the emotional impact of the situation, nor does it effect the change required. Perhaps educating our younglings that as sure as there are many rivers to the sea, so is the road to success. Chasing those all important As is not what it's all cranked up to be.


For some, however, it is a necessary evil. After all, not everyone can afford to get their children the best of education. Just like everything else, the price of education goes up by the hundreds per year. Multiply this by seven if you're going to England. So you need your scholarship. You need to continue the rat race, so that you can get higher up the ladder of life.


But we need to change this. Numbers alone do not define a person. Numbers alone do not properly identify the potential that a child may or may not have. Numbers and grades alone are merely the construct of other people. "But if parents and society still place great importance on examinations,” continued Hishamuddin, “what can we do?"


What can we do?


Right to Children

We can change. Change, by default, is a natural process; indeed, it is the very axiom of evolution.
We can change the way we do things. Teachers can change their approach, their way of teaching. Parents can change, by encouraging children to take part in activities other than tuition after school hours. Students can also change, learning to go to the appropriate channels to seek help when needed, and support when desired.

While not advocating that its time we grow an extra head (though that might come in handy), a shift in mentality is needed. Not for us, not for the people who no longer call childhood 'home'. But for those who currently do, and for those who will do so in the very near future.


And c
hange has to come from us.

But what about the children now? In the current society where such achievements are lauded and applauded, where do we stand now? Is this how children are supposed to grow up? What kind of future do we have when the only achievements that are truly lauded are the numbers on papers? Big numbers does not equal success. Big money does not equal happiness.

If Joachim Theis, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office Youth and Partnership project officer, has his way, we would be paying more attention to them. Not in terms of actually guarding them 24/7, but in terms of listening to them more. “Every child, right from birth, is entitled to human rights,” he said in an interview with The New Straits Times. “It is the most fundamental right. Without the right to expression, children are limited in their development and are at greater risk of abuse and exploitation.”

The same recipe worked well for other segments of society who were discriminated against. The black people in American refused to be slaves. They marched for it, fought for it, and in the conventional sense at least, are no longer slaves; they are no longer blacks, they are African Americans.

Will children get there as well? Will we be able to advance our cause by according them similar rights? After all, equal rights is a form of protection: protection of discrimination, abuse and hurt just because you are what you are. History has shown that this protection provides great buffer from the outside, and allows those within it to grow.

But where can this line be drawn? How can we legally decide the divide between being disciplined and being assaulted? Because in New Zealand, that's the difference between a child learning his lesson and a father being sentenced to 9 months probation and anger management. Upon first reflection, this might smack (no pun intended) of overreaction. Do a child deserve their right? In a word, yes. Should that right be abused? In another word, no.

But don't parents also have the right to discipline their children in a way that they deem fit the 'crime'? I would also say yes. It is in preparing our child for the future that we need to take the utmost care, and ensure that certain lessons are heeded. Sometimes, it takes a smack to ensure that it gets knocked in the head. Kids need to know that if you break the rule, whatever rule, the chances of them being punished one way or another is quite high.

Of course, excessive force and violence from the parent would not be welcome, at all. Unfortunately, it is here that the grey area arise: what is excessive? What is violent, for that matter? It doesn't take a genius to know that hitting your kid with a baseball bat or pouring hot water on them is not right. But three smacks on the bottom? Smacking a child's wrist if they get caught stealing sweets from the shop?
Aren't these a little over the top? Should these be the acts that gets people convicted of assault?

Perhaps there should be a whole other right accorded to children. Throwing the phrase around like 'human rights' might sound great, politically, projecting the image that you're willing to do something. But saving our children, providing a better future for them is different than protecting the people of Sudan from genocide, or fighting for the rights of minorities in Malaysia. While this is not to say that they are any less human, the sort of protection and care that they need is more specific, and more specialised.

Conclusion

Ultimately, when it comes to children, it is a complex issue. For the most part, this is due to the fact that they are not mature enough, not strong enough, not able enough, in some situations, to tell us what they truly need. The dictum, that parents knows best, still holds true for a large part, especially for younger children.

And even if they are, the chance for them to do so is limited. “There are too few opportunities for children at all levels of society — family, school, community, workplace, media, governance and politics, and civil society — to express their views,” added Theis.

Perhaps a clue to the answer lies in the past, our past. Perhaps society have forgotten what its like to be a kid. Maybe the answer as to how we should treat our children, and how to shape them for a better future, lies in us asking ourselves,
what were we like as children?

How would we have our futures changed?


*An article written and published as 'Missing Childhoods' on THINK Online. Contact me for references.

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