by Kul Chandra Gautam
Chairman, World Day of Prayer and Action for Children
Fourth Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 18 June 2012
During this GNRC Forum, we have heard some shocking statistics and touching stories of massive child poverty around the world. But we also heard deep commitment and expressions of solidarity by political, civic and religious leaders, as well as children and young people themselves, to combat the worst manifestations of such poverty.
This afternoon we will be issuing a ‘Dar es Salaam Declaration’ committing ourselves and calling on others to inspire, act and change to end child poverty. In our call to action we will emphasize the need to tackle poor governance and corruption; to end violence against children; and to promote equity to give every child a fair chance to survive and thrive.
Poverty is a huge issue, of course, and eliminating it is the centre-piece of the Millennium Development Goals.
There are many players involved in the fight against poverty – ranging from national governments to international organizations, from the World Bank to the United Nations, from community-based organizations to multinational corporations, and from those offering micro-credits to mega projects.
Among such constellation of players in a crowded field, I often wonder what can the world’s religions and faith-based organizations really do to combat poverty?
They can, of course, issue sermons and statements, they can offer prayers and blessings. But can they do more? Is it even their duty or responsibility to combat poverty?
I wish to share with you a personal experience which addressed this profound question in a real-life setting for me.
I served as UNICEF Representative in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, in the 1980s.That was the time of the notorious dictatorship of Baby Doc Duvalier when people were not only suffering from poverty but from massive oppression of human rights unleashed by Duvalier’s brutal militia called the TonTon Macoutes.
Even Haiti’s Catholic Church, known as the ‘Big Church’, was compromised, as it was seen as tacitly supporting the Duvalier regime. Hence many ordinary people were beginning to desert the Big Church and gravitate towards what was then known as the ‘Little Church’ (petit eglise) that espoused the ‘theology of liberation’ that was gaining some momentum all over Latin America and the Caribbean.
Among the Catholic Bishops of Haiti, there was one particularly enlightened archbishop in the northern diocese of Cap Haitien, named Monseigneur Francois Gayot who noticed the growing disenchantment of his flock. So he commissioned a poll asking an identical question to both his parish priests and to the general public.
The question was this: “what do you think is the main mission of the Church and the priests in our community?”
The answers he received could not have been more contrasting.
The priests responded that the main mission of the Church was to inspire and to provide religious guidance and moral teachings to the parishioners, and to bring them the word of God.
The ordinary people, on the other hand, felt that the mission of their church and priests was to help people understand and fight against poverty, inequality and oppression.
The archbishop was stunned how the priests and the people looked at the world, and the role of religion, in very different ways. And he concluded that the people were right, and the priests needed to learn from and respond to the people’s felt needs.
In a more nuanced way he emphasized that religious leaders needed to be more responsive to the people’s views and needs, even as the priests tried to inculcate certain moral, ethical and spiritual values among the people.
And just as priests try to bring to the people the message of God, so should they be prepared to learn from ordinary people’s folk wisdom, and bring to their religious leaders the heart-felt messages of ordinary people.
I believe that it is because of the lack of such mutual understanding, that so many wrongs are committed, injustice is justified, and harmful traditional practices are perpetuated in the name of religion.
In many societies, women are oppressed, children are deprived of education, and youth are incited to hate people belonging to other faiths—so often in the name of God and religion.
Religious intolerance, bigotry and indifference to the plight of poor people is an extreme form of the poverty of faith and spirituality.
We know that in their core, all the great religions of the world guide us to live by such noble universal norms as peace, non-violence, compassion, tolerance, as we call ahimsa, karuna, metta, modita in the Buddhist/Hindu traditions.
But our own poverty of faith, including among religious clergy, guides us to teach otherwise.
GNRC has tried to address this issue through its Learning to Live Together: An Intercultural and Interfaith Programme for Ethics Education, about which we will hear more in the next session from our colleague Ms. Agneta Ucko.
Another important initiative of GNRC is the ‘World Day of Prayer and Action for Children’.
As most of us know, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty. Every year we celebrate the anniversary of CRC on the 20th of November, which is also commemorated as Universal Children’s Day.
Different groups celebrate this anniversary in different ways. Pediatricians might celebrate it as child health day. Teachers might celebrate it as child education day.
How might religious or faith-based organizations celebrate it?
This was a question we discussed at the Third GNRC Forum in Hiroshima in 2008. And following detailed consultation with many religious, inter-faith and secular organizations, we came to the conclusion that religious organizations and child-oriented secular groups should celebrate it as the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children.
Our vision, and our dream, is to see that on or around the 20th of November every year, the world’s religious communities would commemorate the anniversary of the CRC in all places of worship – churches, temples mosques, synagogues and shrines – in every community all over the world, and that the vicinities of such community would be the hubs for prayers as well as specific actions to help achieve internationally agreed child rights and development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.
Of course, for many us who are dedicated to the cause of children, every day should be a day of prayer and action for children. But a once-a-year milestone can be a mobilizing occasion to renew our commitment with new vigour – year round.
When we first launched the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children in 2008, initially we envisoned that we might choose a different theme each year. Thus in 2009 we chose the theme of child poverty. In 2010 we chose the theme of child health and nutrition.
While these themes were very appropriate and attractive, we learned that the most pressing issues of poverty and health were rather different in different parts of the world. Our initial evaluation indicated that a theme that would resonate all across the world, was preventing violence against children, which has now been chosen as the common theme for the foreseeable future.
As we heard yesterday from Ms. Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against children, an important dimension of poverty that is not widely recognized, is how closely it is linked with violence against children, and how tackling poverty is one of the most sustainable ways to reduce violence.
We know violence exists in all societies, rich and poor, but children who are subject to extreme poverty characterized by high rates of mortality and fertility, malnutrition and illiteracy, also suffer disproportionately from the worst kinds of neglect, abuse, exploitation and violence.
Hence the fight against poverty and violence can truly be considered two sides of the same coin.
Poverty very directly exacerbates such violence. For example, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in impoverished families with unemployed adults.
Many poor neighbourhoods, with young people who can neither afford to go to school, nor find jobs, tend to have higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, gang violence and other crimes that impact children.
Now, some may say that poverty has always been with us, and will never be completely eliminated. That may be true in the case of relative poverty, but in a $70 trillion global economy, we simply cannot and should not accept the persistence of absolute poverty as the unavoidable fate of humanity.
Even with the current global financial crisis, the world can certainly afford the modest investment needed to raise healthy, well-nourished, educated children who will grow-up to become productive citizens. And they, in turn, can help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
We must consider raising children in an atmosphere of non-violence, non-discrimination, positive parenting and social harmony, as investment in creating a better society and a better world, and therefore, mount a coordinated effort to tackle poverty and violence.
The idea of a World Day of Prayer and Action for Children is gathering rapid momentum. In 2011 some 400 faith-based and secular organizations were involved in different prayer and action activities in some 72 countries with the direct participation of some 125,000 people.
Organizations involved included all major religions of the world and such secular organizations as UNICEF and Save the Children. GNRC was a key player. I would commend you to www.dayofprayerandaction.org for further information.
I would like to take the occasion to thank many organizations and individuals attending this GNRC Forum who have been actively involved in organizing the Day of Prayer and Action for Children. And I would like to urge all participants here, who may not have been involved in DPAC so far to learn more about it, and consider being actively involved in the future.
I would like to especially urge all religious leaders here to embrace the Day of Prayer and Action as your own activity, and offer us your suggestions and guidance on how we can turn this into a true global movement for children.
I believe all of us at this GNRC Forum share a common vision – the vision of a world in which all children have a joyous childhood: where they can play, learn and grow, where they are loved and cared for, where their health and safety are protected, and where their gender is not a liability.
Right now, that world remains a dream for tens of millions of children. But it is a dream that I really believe can come true within a single generation, if we can help generate strong political commitment, sustained public action and genuine community participation, including the participation of children and young people themselves – as we are doing at this Forum.
We certainly need to double, triple and quadruple the scale of our programmes, and the intensity of our commitment if we are to end the worst manifestation of child poverty and violence in our life-time.
Religious leaders are by nature expert communicators, opinion leaders and social mobilisers. They are accustomed to translating complex texts into understandable messages.
We count on you to take a more leading role, joining hands with governments, NGOs, international organizations, the private sector and leaders of civil society to combat child poverty and violence.
As the old African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”. And raising children to their full human potential is not just our family duty, but is the ultimate mark of our great human civilisation.
Whether a child is born in a poor family in Tanzania or an affluent one in Norway, whether it is a girl in Afghanistan or a boy in Japan, they all have a right to a standard of living that is adequate for their health and well-being, food and clothing, basic education and other social services.
Never before did humankind have the capacity to do so much good, to reach so many, to work with the poor and the oppressed, to empower them, and to promote justice and human rights for all, as we do today.
Let us commit ourselves today to seize this historic opportunity, let us invoke and harness the power of the world’s great religious traditions, and our moral leadership, to promote the well-being of children, and to liberate all God’s children from the grip of poverty and violence.
For this purpose, among other actions, I urge you all to join in celebrating every year, a World Day of Prayer and Action for Children.