20 years after UN pact, many children still suffer

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 6:23 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE _ The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child 20 years ago Friday, yet hundreds of millions of children still suffer from violence, hunger and disease. Associated Press correspondents around the globe interviewed children who illustrate the remaining challenges, along with some victories.

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A Mexican boy bleeds and has backache from toting sacks of vegetables. In Sierra Leone a former child soldier is going to college. A Haitian child scrubs floors for a family that took her in. An 8-year-old German girl does her homework in a children's home called the Ark. A South African boy of 5 is saved by AIDS drugs.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti _ Saintia Pierre was born in a country forged by a slave rebellion. But she is not free.

The round-faced girl is 15 now, and since age 6 she has lived as the captive of another family, forced to cook their food, scrub their floors, clean their clothes and look after children older than she. If she messes up, she gets beaten.

Saintia is a "restavek," one of at least 172,000 children estimated by UNICEF to be living as servants in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. A 2003 census said about 3 percent of Haiti's children between the ages of 5 and 14 live in domestic servitude.

"Restavek," from the French, is Creole for "stays with." It is so shameful that most families keep their little servants hidden or introduce them as "little cousins" _ and indeed some are the children of desperate relations.

The family that keeps Saintia makes no bones about her status.

"I wanted to send her back to her mother already because she's at an age where she can get pregnant," said Ernest Delice, a city councilman who makes money on the side selling pharmaceuticals and homemade wine. "But if she wants to stay we'll help her the same as we do now."

Saintia was born in the Haitian capital's Cite Soleil slum, a notorious shantytown then dominated by powerful gangs and the drug trade. Her mother had at least seven children and gave them all away, according to Delice's family.

She ended up with Delice's relatively well off family in Cite Plus, a warren of concrete shacks along the garbage-piled banks of a sewage canal.

One recent day, Saintia was on her hands and knees, barefoot in a green plaid dress, scrubbing the concrete floor with a dirty rag and dirtier water. She made two trips down the street to fill a 20-liter (five-gallon) bucket of drinking water, which she carried back on her head.

Delice said he cares for the girl better than her mother could, giving her food and the equivalent of $15 a year to attend school about two hours a day.

But speaking privately in the room where she and some of Delice's own children sleep on the floor, Saintia said she is not allowed to go out and play _ and her dreams are ignored.

"They make me feel like I'm not part of the family," she said. "When they do something for me, they remind me I don't deserve it."

By Jonathan M. Katz

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BEIJING _ Asked by a teacher to show her classmates how to write a character in Chinese class, 12-year-old Yu Chenchen scrapes a piece of chalk against the blackboard, but it snaps. Overhead, a chunk of white plaster falls from the ceiling, making the children laugh.

Conditions are lacking at the school in a Beijing suburb for about 500 children of migrant workers. Cotton blankets are draped over the classroom's windows as buffers against the blistering winds of Beijing's frigid winter, but without adequate heating, the children sniffle all the time and rub their hands together under their desks.

Millions of impoverished Chinese farmers have moved to prosperous cities to build skyscrapers or clean homes. Those who bring their children with them often find it difficult to pay for medical treatment and enroll them in decent schools because they are not registered residents. UNICEF says around 20 million migrant children live in Chinese cities, many invisible to authorities.

Chenchen almost never sees a doctor when she's sick because medical fees are too expensive.

"If I have a cold, I wrap myself in many thick blankets," Chenchen says. "I don't want to burden my parents."

Chenchen has attended five different schools in as many years since her parents first relocated from their hometown in central China to the capital city in search of work.

This year, Chenchen and her brother started attending a small, rundown private school for migrant children in Xiaxinpu, a village in Beijing's outskirts. School fees are more than 1,000 yuan ($150) a year per child _ a hefty portion of her parents' 10,000 yuan ($1,500) annual earnings.

"Whenever I change schools I have to start over again. Once, I moved before finishing even half a semester," said the fifth grader as she squatted in front of her 4-year-old brother during recess to wipe dirt off his face with a wad of toilet paper. "I wish I could just go to one school."

Chenchen doesn't complain. Her mother works as a maid and her father is a laborer, but the girl has dreams and sees education as the key to a better life.

"I love to eat, so I hope to be a nutritionist when I grow up," Chenchen said, her round cheeks widening into a grin.

By Gillian Wong

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MOSCOW _ Tanya's face lit up as she vroomed her toy jeep across the floor at Road to Home, a Moscow shelter for children. The 8-year-old tomboy was seized from abusive, alcoholic parents a month ago.

Just a few years ago, crowds of hungry kids were sleeping on Russian streets. Now that authorities have largely dealt with that problem, they focus on rescuing children like Tanya from broken homes.

"Four to five years ago we had real problems. Children were hiding with their families around the train stations," said Maj. Yury Tverdyakov, deputy head of the police's juvenile department at Kazansky Train Station in central Moscow.

"The government just started taking the problem really seriously, and you see the effects. Money has appeared, and we have the resources to do our job," he said.

The rise in poverty as Russia botched the transition from communism to the free market in the early 1990s meant homeless children would harass tourists for handouts around Russia's photogenic landmarks. Their numbers ballooned to more than 100,000 nationwide, according to conservative UNICEF estimates.

Jacqueline Gaskell, a UNICEF consultant, says the number of homeless children has fallen sharply due to government investment in institutions and shelters.

None could be found during recent searches of three central train stations, parks and subway stations _ a big turnaround from the 1990s and a sign that the wealth Russia gained from record oil prices is having an effect.

Road to Home, which opened in 1992, was the first such shelter in Moscow. UNICEF now estimates around 2,000 children live on the streets in Moscow.

The 12 children's' shelters around Moscow are handsomely equipped, and staff outnumber the kids in most of them.

The Krasnoselsky Shelter has 60 long-term kids and a staff of 95 teachers, doctors, psychologists, cooks and security guards.

Human rights activists acknowledge the progress.

But they urge greater action in other areas to address issues such as the suicide rate among minors _ eight times higher than the world average _ and the 40,000 crimes against kids registered each year.

By David Nowak

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CAIRO, Egypt _ When Azza Radwan's 10-year old daughter got circumcised, she bled for days.

"She was getting so sick so fast," Radwan said. "I was losing my daughter."

The girl survived and is now 12. But Radwan was so shocked she decided that her two younger daughters would not be "purified," as female circumcision is called here.

Radwan, 43, represents a success story in the fight against female genital mutilation in Egypt, one of the countries where the practice is most pervasive. Some studies estimate that 96 percent of married Egyptian women have undergone the procedure, in which parts of the genitalia are cut. The practice is also common in Yemen and parts of Africa.

Egypt's Health Ministry in 2007 barred medical facilities from carrying out circumcisions, and there have been discussions about outlawing it completely.

Progress is slow. The most recent comprehensive study predicts that over the next decade, nearly two-thirds of Egyptian girls aged 9 and under will undergo mutilation.

Radwan remembers being circumcised when she was 8. "I kept running away from them but they'd catch up and force me down."

She now considers herself an agent for informing others in the community what she has learned in health awareness classes sponsored by a women's group.

"I take the things we learn and tell them to my friends," she said. "But then, everyone is free to do what they want."

By Hadeel al-Shalchi

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MEXICO CITY _ Leonardo Sanchez wakes before sunrise each day to head to his job at Mexico City's sprawling La Merced market, where he packages herbs and vegetables.

The 12-year-old boy's back aches from hauling the 10-pound (5-kilogram) bags from the bed of a pickup truck to his family's stand. On an average day, he prepares up to 35 bags.

The leaves on the vegetables are sharp. "My hands sometimes bleed," said Leonardo, sitting in the back of his family's truck, wiping mud from a massive bunch of green onions before bagging them.

By 1 p.m., he has already worked eight hours, but he has no time to rest. The soft-spoken boy takes off his apron covering his car-racing T-shirt, rushes home for a quick shower and heads off to school. He returns home at 7 p.m., eats and falls into bed.

In Mexico, 3.6 million children aged 5 to 17 were engaged in labor in 2007, including 1.1 million children under 14, the legal minimum working age, according to UNICEF.

Leonardo is a third-generation child laborer. His father started working to help support his family before he reached puberty. So did his grandfather. Their toil has aided the family's slow climb from deep poverty.

The grandfather lived in a shack in the central state of Tlaxcala before he moved his wife and five children to the city. He saved his money and bought a stand at the market, where his children worked. The family now owns a cinderblock home in Mexico City and a pickup truck.

Leonardo's aunt, Socorro Sanchez, said she dropped out of school at 15 to work. Today, she picks up the day's merchandise from distributors at 2 a.m. The boy meets her at the market three hours later.

"It's a tough life," said the aunt. "That's why we want him to keep studying."

Leonardo does not want to work at the market forever.

"Some day," he said, "I would like to be a police officer or a firefighter."

By Julie Watson

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone _ Alhaji Babah Sawaneh's commander ordered him to shoot at innocent civilians and chop off their limbs. He saw women raped repeatedly. He was only 11, a child soldier of one of West Africa's most brutal civil wars.

Sawaneh was fetching water from a river with his brothers when rebels abducted him at gunpoint in 1997. They killed his uncle in front of him, and took the boy with them.

"I walked for 10 days, day and night, restlessly, killing, burning of houses, and amputation continuing by the rebels during the journey," said Sawaneh, now 22.

The commander called them the SBU, the Small Boys Unit.

"When we were about to arrive in the village, my commander gave me a small machine gun and instructed me to shoot directly into the village. He told me that if I refused he would kill me," Sawaneh said.

"The commander himself started shooting toward the village and the villagers started running. I started shooting with my gun and 15 people were killed in the village, while some were also captured.

"My commander asked us to cut off their limbs and when I delayed to carry out the instruction, he warned me for the last time and called me 'little rat.' We cut off limbs of 10 civilians."

In his second year with the rebels, Sawaneh began thinking about his parents and tried to escape. When he was caught, his commander flogged him with a machete. His back still bears the scars.

In January 2000, Sawaneh, then 13, was released with other child soldiers and put in a center for former child combatants. The center was unable to find his family.

More than 10,000 children younger than 15 were forced to fight in Sierra's Leone's 10-year civil war, according to UNICEF, and there are about 300,000 child soldiers around the world.

Sawaneh is now in his third year at the University of Sierra Leone, studying peace and conflict resolution.

"I would like to dedicate my knowledge to the advocacy against the use of children in armed conflict, which will help to promote peace and security in the world," he said.

By Clarence Roy-Macaulay

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BERLIN _ Tabea pushes a strand of hair from her eyes and dips a piece of bread to mop up the thick, warm broth of a goulash.

The 8-year-old was thrilled to find her favorite dish in the noisy kitchen at Die Arche, or The Ark, where she and some 400 other children in Berlin's Hellersdorf neighborhood come each day after school to fill up on what they don't have at home _ supportive adults, activities and a hot meal.

"I've been coming here since I was 2," she said. "All of my friends are here, my sisters used to come here."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, nearly every sixth child in Germany, or nearly 3 million, live below the poverty level or in a family with less than half the national income average.

While that is below the roughly 20 percent of children the organization says are considered poor in the U.S., the number in Germany has been rising, despite relatively high government spending on education, social services and direct payments.

Children from impoverished homes struggle more in school. This can have long-term consequences in a system where pupils are tracked at age 10 into middle and senior high schools, determining whether they will attend university, technical or vocational secondary schools.

"I mostly do my homework at The Ark," said Tabea, who had to repeat second grade. "All of my friends are here. I come here every day. It's kind of like a home."

Tabea lives in a high-rise, communist-era apartment with her parents and three of her four half-siblings.

Her two older sisters started coming to The Ark shortly after it opened in 2001. Back then there were 200 children, most of whom had been hanging on the streets.

That number has doubled in recent years, growing with the rise in child poverty.

By Melissa Eddy

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JOHANNESBURG _ The 5-year-old boy with a bright smile revealing a row of missing teeth wouldn't be running around the playground if not for the drugs that have turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable disease.

He had been infected with HIV while in the womb. His mother died three years ago, leaving him and his brother in the care of their sister, just two years older than him.

There was little to eat beyond the occasional piece of bread scavenged from a neighbor.

Concern about the children _ and the smell coming from their Soweto shack _ led neighbors to contact Cotlands, an organization that cares for sick and vulnerable children.

"He couldn't suck on a bottle. He couldn't walk and he could hardly sit," said social worker Kathy Hawthorn. "By the time we got there, their mother was terminal. The children never saw her again."

The boy is not identified because AIDS is a stigma in South Africa.

Within months of going on AIDS drugs, he was sitting up and starting to walk.

"Now he is a healthy, happy, mischievous little 5-year-old who is going to go to school in a year's time," Hawthorn said.

About 5.7 million South Africans are living with HIV _ the highest number of any country in the world.

Great progress has been made in getting treatment to millions of poor South Africans, but 1,000 still die every day from AIDS-related illness.

Hawthorn sees firsthand what the medicine can do. She began working with Cotlands 15 years ago when few drugs were available and children died daily. In the last year only one died.

"What we are seeing here, what treatment has done, is a miracle," she said.

By Celean Jacobson