The Bible as an Advocate for Children
Whoever welcomes this child in my name...
Throughout the Bible, children are seen as a blessing and a sign of God's favor, and are often bearers of God's promise for the future. The scriptures call us to care for and defend the children, as they are the most vulnerable members of God's family.
Early in the Old Testament, we hear of the significance of a child as a bearer of God's promise and sign of God's faithfulness. We also learn that children at risk can be recipients of God's special concern. Later in the Old Testament, prophetic voices judged entire nations by their treatment of widows and orphans.1
In the New Testament, Jesus accords children a kind of respect and attention nearly always reserved for adults. In seeking out children and in naming them as role models for his disciples, Jesus revolutionized attitudes toward the place of the child in the human community.
Paul likewise calls on adults to treat children with respect and care. He admonishes parents not to provoke their children to anger, and calls for the provision of a stable home in which the child might grow.
The biblical record, and especially the life and teachings of Jesus, calls on Christians to ensure that children are respected and loved. Rather than being excluded, exiled or exploited, children are brought to the Master's lap and thus into the center of the circle of his love and concern. They must be treated in the same way by his followers.
God chose to enter human history in the person of a child. Though Jesus' mother anticipated his birth with an exaltation that in him the lowly would be lifted up and the mighty laid low, he was nonetheless born in a poor dwelling to parents of little economic means. Soon this child of prophecy was hunted by government authorities who saw him as threat, rather than a savior. The Christ child spent his early years as a refugee in a foreign land. It perhaps is no surprise, then, that this child grew to be a man whose early experiences were used by God to engender a special concern for the troubled children of the world. He had been one of these troubled little ones himself.
The Situation of Child Workers
if any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones...
It is a troublesome time to be a child in much of the world today. Children are disproportionately numbered among the world's poor, the world's sick, the world's uneducated, the world's refugees, and the world's victimized. Estimates are that 100,000,000 street children look for a place to call home.2 One in five children in the United States and two out of three children in many countries live in poverty. Every day, 35,000 children in the world die of preventable causes.3 In the past 10 years, wars have left 2 million children killed, 4-5 million disabled, and 12 million homeless. As many as 200,000 children currently serve as soldiers in dozens of the world's armed conflicts.4
The causes for this blight upon the world's children are many. Sometimes they are simply "collateral damage," suffering from the latest economic plan or military conflict. Most often, however, poverty is at the root of children's misery. In many places in the world, and particularly in rural areas, families find that they cannot earn enough money to care for basic needs such as food and shelter. Indeed, of the world's 5.7 billion people, 1.3 billion live in absolute poverty, earning less than one dollar per day.5 With disturbing regularity, parents' inability to provide for their families leads to suffering for their children.6
As these facts make clear, poverty is a dominant reality for a large percentage of the world's people--and its children. This poverty, in turn, is at the root of the exploitation of children worldwide, as these young ones are forced into the labor market to supplement family income.10 Certainly, work can be a valuable part of a child's development, as children can learn occupational skills, responsibility, and a sense of participation in a joint family or community enterprise. Work becomes exploitative when the child begins to be seen primarily as an economic commodity and the necessity to work denies other important childhood experiences.
According to United Nations statistics, the number of child workers in the world is over 250 million. [International Labor Organization, as reported in the Guardian Weekly, November 17, 1996]. These figures do not include children who work as domestic workers, of whom there are tens of millions globally. More than 95 percent of all child workers live in developing countries. Asia accounts for half of all child workers. However, Africa has the highest percentage of children working--roughly one in three. In Latin America, some 15 to 20 percent of all children work.11
The majority of the world's working children are engaged in agriculture in some form. Many of these work in subsistence agriculture with their families. As such, these children are not "exploited labor;" they nonetheless are often deprived of education and other experiences beneficial to a child's development.
Many other children, however, find themselves drawn into the commercial agricultural sector, often joining with other family members in working for a corporation or large landowner. In fact, up to 12 percent of the workforce employed on the world's agricultural plantations are children.12 In many cases children are preferred over adults: they are plentiful in rural areas; they can be paid less than adult workers; and they are considered more docile and pliant than adults.13 Even when an entire family works together, their combined efforts often can only earn the equivalent of one minimum daily wage. Additionally, it is becoming clear that children are much more susceptible than adults to workplace hazards, including toxic chemicals, radiation, carcinogens, and occupational injuries.14 The United States is not devoid of unfair labor practices regarding children: It is estimated that 100,000 children work illegally in agriculture in this country.15
As poverty continues to be a scourge in many rural areas, millions of children have had to migrate to urban areas in search of work. Sometimes parents choose to send their children off to work in order to supplement family income. In other instances, the children are sent to work in order to pay off loans made to the parents. This is called "debt bondage." It is estimated that in India alone, 10 million child laborers are in "chronic bondage."16 A loan of as little as $10 is enough to ensnare an individual in a lifelong web of debt.17 Other children are tricked into becoming part of the child labor force by unscrupulous recruiters.
Child workers are often expected to work as much as 20 hours per day, seven days a week. [By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol.11, U.S. Department of Labor, 1995, page 5] Children as young as five years of age are "employed" as child workers. The fruit of their labor is often literally pennies a day, with much of this absorbed by the employer to cover the child's living costs. [In one factory in Bangladesh, for example, investigators found that 60 percent of the workers were under 13 years of age. Monthly salaries for these children ranged from $7 to $30. Work shifts were often 14 hours per day, with the children needing to stand the entire period. Children who are late to work by as little as a minute on three different days have a full day's wage deducted from their pay. International Child Labor: A Global Crisis, Pharis Harvey, International Labor Organization at Capitol Hill Briefing organized by the Child Labor Coalition, February 23, 1993.] In such settings, the child who works in a factory is often unprotected from workplace hazards, suffers from malnutrition and disease, and is subject to stunting and deformity.
Sexual slavery is another form of forced child labor. Children are sometimes sold into sexual slavery by poor parents. Often, however, the child is tricked into traveling to urban areas, or simply kidnaped outright. Once they begin their "work," they join literally millions of children worldwide whose bodies are sold, primarily to middle class businessmen and tourists. Young girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are not afforded the same vocational options and educational opportunities are boys. It is estimated that there are 500,000 girl prostitutes in Brazil, 400,000 in Thailand, and 70,000 in Taiwan.18 However, boys are also sexually exploited in some cultures. For example, little boys make up the majority of the 400,000 sexually exploited children in India and the 30,000 in Sri Lanka.19 These children often contract sexually transmitted diseases that scar them for life. For their trauma, these girls and boys receive a tiny percentage of the fees paid by numerous customers who abuse them each day.
Children in the United States are not immune to this kind of exploitation. Trapped with their families in the cycle of poverty, many children in this country become entangled in illegal drug trade and prostitution. It is estimated that 125,000 to 200,000 teenagers become involved in prostitution each year in the U.S., about two thirds of whom are street youth.20
Not only is their immediate existence imperiled, but exploited children caught in this vicious cycle find their future health and opportunities for a successful life jeopardized as well. Their emotional and relational growth is crippled. They are denied education, thus trapping them in a life of poverty. There is, then, the increased likelihood that their own children will likewise be used to generate money for their family, thus dooming them to repeat the parents cycle.
One driving force behind child labor is the proliferation of national and multinational corporations scouring the world for cheap sources of labor. While many U.S. companies have adopted "codes of conduct" that prohibit the use of child laborers, in reality the codes are often widely ignored by the independent contractors who run the factories in other countries. Certainly, few workers have ever heard of the "codes" that are supposed to be protecting them. In spite of claims of code adherence by U.S. companies, it is estimated that as many as 50 million children worldwide produce goods for the United States consumer.21 The lure of large profit margins outweighs moral considerations, as in many instances the wages paid to workers who actually fabricate a garment or other item amount to less than one percent of the eventual retail price of the article. [The chairman or one well-known athletic shoe company earns four times more than the entire shoe industry workforce in Indonesia, a prominent location for U.S. shoe manufacturers. Capitol Hill Briefing, The Child Labor Coalition, February 23, 1993.] In contrast, alternative trade organizations such as SERRV International return at least 30 percent of the retail price to the producer.
Consumption patterns among wealthy members of the global family play a key role in the exploitation of children as workers. As the richest twenty percent of the world's population control eighty-five percent of the world's wealth, their economic clout is enormous. These economic resources allow the wealthy to dictate economic policies and workers' wages. Countries not complying with the rules find job opportunities moved to more amenable sites.22
Military power plays a role in maintaining the global economic order. Military force is used to protect economic interests, either by the deployment of troops or in providing military aid to governments whose strategic location or economic policies favor the economic interests of the donor nation. [Promises Not Kept, pg. 222] Military spending also utilizes funds that could otherwise be used to meet human need.23
Global Economy, Global Family
Let the little children come. . .
The nations of the world are increasingly bound together in a global economic system. Thus it is nearly impossible for citizens of one nation to be unaffected by developments elsewhere, or to think that their lives do not affect the lives of others. Citizens of the United States are certainly deeply affected by and greatly affect people of other nations.24
Even though citizens of this country are part of the global consuming class, we are not always aware of the implications of our economic policies and spending patterns. Certainly, corporations are not inclined to be transparent regarding their business practices when it is not in their best interest to do so. Most companies do not want consumers to be aware of below-subsistence levels paid to those who produce high-priced merchandise.25
Whether or not we are conscious of the implications of our actions, they often have a direct impact upon people and communities far beyond us. The pursuit of a continually increasing standard of living and the opportunity to be avid consumers affects our global family. Corporations competing to get our business will seek the sources of labor which will lower unit costs. Investors seeking the highest return on investments are reluctant to ask questions of companies that provide hefty profit margins. Shoppers seeking bargain prices to meet family budgets are unlikely to scrutinize the policies of producers able to provide lower prices.
Brethren have long understood that their lives are intertwined with those of their neighbors near and far. We have wanted to know the implications of our own and our nation's actions for either good or ill in the lives of others. In this regard, we are fortunate to live in a nation where we can freely express our opinions regarding the actions of our government or of U.S.-based companies that do business around the world.
Brethren must use these opportunities to work toward a global community where all people have the chance to grow and develop as God intends. In particular, Brethren want to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable in the world--its children--are given the chance to fully experience the joys and freedoms of childhood, while preparing for the future by enjoying good emotional and physical health, experiencing a stable family environment, and attaining an appropriate education. Child exploitation denies these experiences for children, and thus must be opposed wherever it exists. This opposition is based on our sense of justice, human decency, and the dignity accorded all people--especially children--in the Bible and in our Christian heritage.
A Call for Compassion and Justice
Unless you change and become like children...
Jesus had an understanding of the character of children and the importance of the development of a child. He saw in children qualities of dependence, trust, an inclusive love that does not distinguish between rank or race, an expectation of great things, an instinct for faith, and a refreshing innocence. It was these qualities he doubtless had in mind when he instructed his followers to become as children. Child exploitation takes away all these characteristics, except for dependency; but even this becomes a negative quality, as the child becomes dependent on a demanding master.
The nations of the world have likewise noted that children are vulnerable and yet full of promise. As a result, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among the articles of this statement is a call for children to be protected from, "...economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development...," and that children be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation.26
In response to the needs of the world's exploited children and to the calling of God's people to extend special care to little ones such as these, the Church of the Brethren must reach out to children in Christian compassion and with a passion for justice. In particular, we recommend the following actions by Church of the Brethren agencies, congregations and members.
Brethren Benefit Trust (BBT)
United States Government
This statement arose from concerns raised by participants at the 1995 Christian Citizenship Seminar, where the theme was "Living our Faith in the Global Community." Study committee members are: Kelli McCauliff, Erin Flory, Nathan Musselman, Heidi Beck, Elizabeth Farmer, and David Radcliff, staff liaison. This paper is dedicated to Stephanie Miller, who died in a car accident on her way home from the seminar.
Resources related to child exploitation
The study committee, along with Director of Brethren Witness David Radcliff, presented the document, which was approved by the delegate body. Four amendments were passed and have been included in the preceding text.