IIN OAS Director General
Taking a closer look at the Americas during the pandemic debunks the common belief that “we are all the same before the virus”. The COVID-19 disease and its side effects have revealed the great inequality faced in our societies, but it has also shed light on the dominant view on childhood-related issues and the place children and teenagers occupy in the list of priorities.
In order to consider this issue from a human rights perspective, we need to go beyond the medical and sanitary aspects and include in the analysis the complex situation produced by the virus, as well as the answers, actions, reactions and interactions prompted by it, which have a multidimensional impact on people’s lives, adults as well as teenagers and children.
Advocates and organizations that defend children’s rights have spoken up about the invisible role of childhood. The threat of the virus and the concern for the collapse of the economy create a blind spot in which some issues attract all the attention while others, which may be just as pressing, are cast aside. This has strengthened the adult-centred view from where decisions are made ignoring the particularities of childhood.
Boys and girls had to face a reality full of real fears and frightening fantasies; they had to deal with the vulnerability caused by financial insecurity and confinement in reduced spaces, with the closing of schools and spending time exclusively with family, with the loss of close contact with peers and extended family, and with the threat of violence at home, which makes them one of the most affected populations by COVID-19.
After a first period of silence regarding the effects of the pandemic on children, some voices were raised, warning about violence, confinement, the closing of educational centres and the interruption of the learning process. This interruption of onsite learning at a schooling stage was the tip of the iceberg perceived from the adult-centred perspective. However, early childhood continues to be ignored.
The fact that boys and girls are entitled to their full rights from the beginning of life is not given enough importance or is completely unknown, resulting in the lack of knowledge or importance given to the responsibility of the communities and the State as regards the implementation of public policies that guarantee access to those rights.
As a result, there are some presuppositions that need to be deconstructed:
- Basically the only right guaranteed during this stage in life is the right to “care”, i.e., to attention of the “basic needs”.
- Early childhood care services are merely considered care services which do not include –at least in a systematic and hierarchical sense– an educational axis.
- Seen in this way, care services are a part-time substitute of parental care, given the time parents need for their jobs.
- The result of this reasoning is that the best place for a child is at home with his or her family.
- And, when adults remain at home due to confinement or unemployment, care services are rendered unnecessary.
In consequence, the increasing importance since the 20th century of early childhood as an issue in the public policy agenda is once again cast aside to the private sphere.
This not only does not guarantee that the child will have access to the necessary stimuli and experiences for his or her development, but it also leaves families to fend for themselves with the possibilities and resources they can get to assume the role of caregivers and educators. Therefore, the extent to which each child’s rights are fulfilled or denied depends on the tools, resources and abilities of his or her family.
The conditions to fulfil the maternal and paternal roles in our societies are deeply unequal. What support do adults receive so that, in turn, they can support their children? How much attention, time and energy will they need to ensure their children’s survival? Are they getting any support from their families or communities? What is the State’s answer to these issues? How are we taking care of caregivers? (This goes beyond medical staff).
When the basic needs to lead a dignified life are not met, mothers, fathers and other adults who fulfil this role are not available to provide attention to their children, have conversations, share moments and play with them, resulting in little adult supervision, damaged relationships, loneliness and lack of protection.
The State’s reluctance to guarantee rights through education and care services for early childhood means that these benefits become commodities and education becomes a market good rather than a “global public right”, as considered by UNESCO. Each family’s income should not determine the extent to which they can access their rights.
Given this context and the risk of taking steps back on the rights conquered through hard work, we need to emphasize the right to education as a right for all boys and girls in every stage of their development, a synergic right insofar as it boosts access to other rights, a right that must be equally ensured by the State, whose ultimately responsible for the fulfilment of all rights.
To achieve this, it is imperative:
- To strengthen the presence of quality public services in every country;
- To ensure the comprehensive capacity of these services, moving past the education-care dichotomy;
- To have continuous training for teachers, so that they can handle daily situations with better understanding;
- To strengthen families and communities in their key roles as protectors of children and advocates for quality services.
Víctor Giorgi is the current General Directorate of the Inter-American Institute for Children and Adolescents (IIN-OEA), a Specialized Organization of the OAS in matters of children and adolescents. He was president of the INAU (Institute for Children and Adolescents of Uruguay). University professor, tenured professor of the Health Area at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of the Republic and he is also the author of various papers and publications on subjects of his specialty. Psychologist and did postgraduate studies in Health Services Administration, Strategic Planning and Training of Human Resources in Health.