While in Benin, we discussed and even met some domestic servants. And by that I mean, adults who had worked as servants for a period of time to work off debt, and children who were “adopted” to help run the house. It became easier over time to pick out these young girls, by their plain, short hair and extremely reserved demeanor. They always referred to the women who essentially owned them as their mothers. They were well-fed and pretty well dressed, but it was clear that they were always on duty: cooking, raising children just a few years younger than themselves, and cleaning. These domestic servants were often orphans or in debt (or their parents were) and eventually they do attain freedom. But their existence was highly disturbing and confusing for all of us.
Before going to Egypt, I talked with Phil about a similar conundrum with the carpet makers of Cairo. Several students would refuse to enter the factories, on the grounds that children make the carpets. But, as Phil pointed out, they were essentially apprentices, earning their room and board by making carpets. Many of them had no parents, or had parents too poor to support them. Compared to being street children, this path had a future.
Sometimes it’s hard to balance our idealism with realism. We want every child to have a fulfilling life, complete with education, friendship, parental figures, good food, love and playtime. We want them to go on to work that they enjoy, or that at the very least can support them and their families, should they choose to have them.
But that’s not what life is like for most people in the world. For many people, being an orphan or the child of people in debt means living on the street, begging and stealing, prostitution, jail. Certainly no education, and few opportunities for lasting happiness. In that sort of world, it is preferable to work as a child and be able to work your way out of extreme poverty, or to at least have food, clothes and shelter for a while.
I know human rights are immutable. They are all the time, for everyone, always and forever. They cannot be lessened or taken away for any reason. When someone or something lessens your rights, they do not take them away from you (you always have them)–they abuse your rights. And that’s a world that I want, but not one that I live in. In this world, working at a carpet factory can mean a career and a life off the streets. It certainly means food and shelter. Sometimes we have to turn off our western sensibilities of what’s right and wrong, and look for what’s best in the meantime, while we try to create a world where this is no longer an issue.
What is the point of having no child labor, if the child will starve if they don’t work? In many places in the world, not working doesn’t mean you get to school. In fact, in many cases, not working means your younger siblings now no longer get to go to school.
What do you think? Is it okay to settle when it comes to human rights? It obviously happens all the time, but is it okay for human rights workers to ever say such a thing? Is our version of human rights really universal? And, if children’s rights are so important in the US, why haven’t we ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?