The Christmas leftovers are eaten, the decorations are packed away, and the season’s concerts are receding into memory. But it is just a short time ago that many of us gathered with family – including little children – to celebrate the birth of another child, the Christ-child Jesus.
As I witnessed the wonder and delight of my little grandchildren at Christmas, I once again whispered a prayer of gratitude that they are growing up in safety and security, their basic needs met, and love surrounding them. But I was also reminded that the well-being of these two little ones results, not only from their amazing parents, but from white middle-class privilege and the good fortune to be born far from a war zone.
For millions of children around the world, and in Canada, life does not include a safe home, enough food and water, or the presence of loving caregivers. It does not include communities in which children can grow and thrive.
Consider these realities:
- According to UNICEF, 2017 was a “nightmare year” for children living in conflict zones. Children in conflict zones came under attack in places that should be safe: homes, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. They were used as human shields. They were raped and enslaved, abducted and recruited to fight, maimed and killed.
- Hundreds of thousands of children were displaced from their homes. Indeed, it is estimated that, currently and worldwide, 50 million children are uprooted by brutal conflict and extreme poverty.
- Displaced children become refugees when they cross an international border. In the last weeks of 2017, we heard much about Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, but child refugees also fled and continue to flee countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them were alone. In Europe, refugees who are “unaccompanied minors” number 100,000 annually.
- Millions of children live with hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. In East Africa alone – notably South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – at the end of 2017, 6.9 million children suffered from malnutrition, with 1 million severely malnourished or at risk of dying by the end of the year.
- Palestinian children in the occupied territories, convicted of throwing stones or some other misdemeanor deemed a security threat to Israel, are placed in Israeli military detention, where abuse, harassment and violation of basic rights are systemic and widespread. (Learn more and take action on this issue.)
And the horrors many children experience are not just “over there.” Many children here in Canada live with poverty, discrimination, violence and insecurity as well.
- For example, 1.2 million children across Canada – representing 17 percent of all Canadian children – live in low-income households. Indigenous children are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Indigenous children. Indeed, poverty rates for children on First Nations reserves average 60 percent across the country, with Manitoba (my province) reporting rates as high as 76 percent.
- Indigenous children in Canada experience discrimination at many levels, including by the federal government. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada systematically discriminated against Indigenous children by not providing the same level of welfare services to children on reserve as to children off reserve. The situation continues.
- Hate crimes and acts of discrimination against Muslims in Canada have increased dramatically over the past years. And, while most of these are directed towards adults, Muslim children are impacted nonetheless. Children were present in the Quebec City mosque where 6 Muslim men were massacred January 29, 2017; seventeen children became fatherless.
- Canadian children also experience violence. While not targeted to the same extent as adults when it comes to violent crime, children are five times more likely than adults to become victims of sexual offenses. In 80 percent of cases reported to police, the perpetrator is someone known to the child victim. Young people under 18 make up a quarter of recorded human trafficking victims.
Children deserve a life free of fear and free of want. They deserve to be loved and cared for by people they can trust and love in return. They deserve to be surrounded by communities of care.
As Christmas 2017 recedes and 2018 opens before us, let us commit to building a world of justice, peace and security for children. Especially those of us who welcome and worship the Christ-child Jesus.
“When God is a child, there is joy in our song, the last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.” — Excerpt from song by Brian Wren, “When God is a child,” © 1989 Hope Publishing Company.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.