Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's never okay

delivered at the round-table conference between media and stakeholders on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
Sulo Hotel, 29 Oct 2009


Good morning everyone. Thank you for having me here. I am here because I represent media by virtue of my job. But I am also a stakeholder, because I am a parent.

When we hear the phrase “violence against children,” some images come to mind automatically. Bruises and scars and the helpless looks on the victims' eyes. Sometimes the lifeless body of a child. Violence is a horrible thing by itself, but when perpetuated against children, it becomes even more detestable. The stories we hear are unbelievable, especially when the perpetrators of the violence – physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, or some or all of them at the same time -- are those persons who are supposed to take care of these children: parents, relatives, teachers, anybody with ascendancy.

This we know through the most compelling stories we see on television or read about in the newspapers. From the looks of it, society is united in condemning these heartless, insane and violent abusers. These are extreme cases. We agree that these children must be given safe haven and that the abusers must be put away in jail. And we will work towards enabling the victims to put the pieces of their life together.

Indeed there is no problem when violence is so extreme that it becomes a public affair.

But media has been less noisy about the subject of corporal punishment, especially in the context of the home. It is something that is private and may be even more sensitive than the dynamics of husband and wife relations. In a marriage, each partner is supposed to be on the same level or to complement the other one, at least ideally. Neither is supposed to be more influential or powerful than the other. Again, ideally. That's partnership. Marriage in the twenty first century.

But when you talk about parents and children, the unequal relationship is there at the outset. Who are we to challenge it? I am the parent and I am clearly in charge. Nobody is going to tell me how I am supposed to raise my child. The assumption here, of course, is that all parents love their children, all have their best intentions in mind, and that parents are not monsters all the time.

Sadly, between the intentions and actual words and actions, an ocean of a difference can lie.

We are all products of different manners of upbringing. Different generations, customs, individual quirks. There are families that solve their problems by yelling at each other. Some are more diplomatic. I suppose most of us are somewhere in between. There are also families that punish their children in various ways, spanking, slapping, depriving them of food or other basic needs, as well as cursing them or uttering words that are meant to humiliate, belittle, degrade them. There are countless nuances and variations. But you get the idea. All in the name of discipline.

Because of our backgrounds and maybe own experiences, we may think that nothing is wrong with these. We may have been subjected to them ourselves and look, we didn't turn out so bad. Several weeks ago I attended a forum organized by this same group that explored the issue of corporal punishment and some initiatives at the House of Representatives.

The biggest hurdle is the resistance of parents to a perceived intrusion by the State into their turf. No matter how the bill is crafted so that it is constructive instead of punitive, parents will feel threatened especially if they are not causing their children any dark bruises, long scars. They know better. They love their children.

But experts tell us that this kind of violence, prolonged and silently borne, may have very serious consequences on the lives of the children. The effects may be physiological, mental and behavioral. The worst thing is that they may be long-term and irreversible. Ms. Fonacier-Fellizar’s paper ends with this warning. What will happen to an angsty generation who will either fold up before authority figures or rebel against them? Either reaction is not beneficial in nation building and in the exercise of raising responsible adults.

This is an important thing that should not be lost in the debate caused by wounded parental pride. Given the resistance, I believe media could help not by dwelling on the negative but in pushing for a positive, constructive way to change this mindset among parents – and among children, too, that it's okay to be harmed. In the previous forum that I mentioned, there was a discussion on positive discipline, along with basic principles and a framework. I think it's worth pushing in a long-haul effort to enlighten a new generation of parents. There is media, of course, but there can also be parent-teacher seminars in schools, peer counseling and many other ways. Nothing beats a positive approach to anything.

Another form of violence against children is what happens in conflict zones. We don't hear, see or read about them in media for obvious reasons. They are just too far away. It is just too difficult to reach out to them and hear their stories of loss and displacement. Yet the sufferings are there. Unfortunately, media's role here is very limited. We do not have the power to stop the senseless wars. We can only tell the stories when we can. And remind everybody that just because this does not occur in Imperial Manila, they are not there. Because they are. And these suffering children who cannot even go outside to play or have parents to go home to have as much a right to a secure and comfortable life as much as your child, or mine.

**

After violence against children, there is also violence BY children. In as much as we do not want our children to be hurt, we also do not want them to be the ones inflicting the hurt on others.

Why else would we frown on games involving virtual battles, especially the graphic ones where the splattering of blood is depicted? Why else would we get so worked up on the existence of bullies either in the school or in the home? And how about the child soldiers recruited by the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF or the New People's Army? Teenagers are ideal recruits for these organizations because they are innocent and trusting like children but have the strength and stamina of adults. They are most likely poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes and have limited access to education and other basic social services. They are so malleable they have no qualms inflicting harm on others. They have nothing to lose.

Violence by children may or may not be the effect of his or her own experience of abuse. In all of these cases, having children who perpetuate violence is equally disturbing. What kind of adults will they grow up to be? What ever happened to their being the nation's hope?

Media's primary role is to drive home the point that violence against children and by children is never okay. It is not something to bear or to suffer. It is not just undesirable but totally unacceptable. We have to remind the public of this every chance we get.

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