By Fr. Shay Cullen        

There is one day of the year set aside to remind us of the horrible painful truth that there are millions of children  around the world working in the fields, factories, brick kilns, construction sites and sex clubs. The clothes we wear, if made in a poor developing nation, are likely to have been made with some form of child labor. The millions of single men on sex tours abuse working children to satisfy their perverted sexual fantasies; it’s a cruel world of exploitation of those declared to be the most important of all in God’s family and equal to Jesus of Nazareth.

Preda Fair Trade organization has campaigned for years to free children from the worst forms of child labor like unpaid slaves in sex bars and clubs. They are in the most hazardous situations where they have to dress in bikinis, pole-dance, be groped, laughed at, molested and be exposed to life threatening diseases and even physical assault. In many bars, they are sold to highest paying sex tourist.

Beth-ann was given by her father to a distant relative when she was 12 years old and she was never sent to school. Instead, she was turned over to the Mamasan of a sex hotel and brought up there as a sex object for local and foreign men. When rescued by the age of 15 by the Preda social workers, she had the mentality of a 9 year-old, illiterate and unable to relate to adults having been a sex object for most of her life. There are thousands like her in many countries.

She is slowly recovering and trying to live a normal life outside of the sex bar and bravely learning to read and write and finding a new set of behaviors and values. There are thousands like her who are still slaves, working in sex bars with the connivance and licensing approval of local government officials who benefit from the sex industry themselves and frequently are hotel or bar owners.

Child labor is, in most situations, the evidence of extreme poverty and exploitation of the poor and the marginalized people. The children are offered jobs as domestic helpers in the city, a down payment is made to the parents in a remote village and the children are carried off to the sex bar or brothel. Another destructive form of so called sex-work for young teenagers is making pornography.  Their images are sold live on the internet for pedophiles to view them. It’s a billion dollar business and the children are the work force.

How is it that until 1989, child labor was generally accepted as necessary, desirable even and it took thousands of years for the Convention on the Rights of the Child to be written and passed. I was a delegate to the drafting conference in Helsinki.  Then Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labor was written and passed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and passed as international law by the United Nations in 1999.  I marched through Geneva to lobby the ILO to pass Convention 182. It bans the worst forms of child labor. However, it is still being violated around the world. Millions of children are unschooled and work in every kind of labor situation to help their families survive.

How is it that children have been held in work bondage for thousands of years and forced to work and be sexually abused. What has been forgotten are the extraordinary statements and acts of Jesus of Nazareth in regard to children. When asked who is the most important in the Kingdom of God, Jesus placed a child in front of them and said a child is the most important of all. He gave them the inalienable right and place of greatest importance in God’s family.

“The most important in the Kingdom is this child”, he told his followers. “To accept one of them is to accept me”, he said. What an extraordinary declaration made at a time when children were considered the property of parents and as non-persons with no rights and only part of the work force. The Church did not oppose it or declare it as intrinsically wrong or have a dogma about it, despite the practice of child labor being a direct contradiction of the Gospel values and of Jesus himself.

Children were number one in Christianity at the beginning, until the institutionalization of Christianity that is. It took secular society in 1989 and 1999 to recognize the inalienable rights of the child. Sadly, it was not the Church who advocated and established in international law, these rights of the child. Instead, it has a nasty history of child abuse, a contradiction of the teachings of its founder. It is now that Pope Francis and enlightened church leaders and child rights advocates are vigorously undoing that past and trying to make amends for that most unjust and abusive past.

We were all children once and may have memories (or suppressed memories), of childhood hardships, drudgery, hard work and even abuse. We can be happy that we have survived and we can understand more easily the suffering and plight of the millions of children who continue to suffer abuse, illiteracy and life of hard labor. They may not survive.  This we can prevent and undo.

We must draw on the spirit of truth and empowerment and be prophetic, missionary, active in speaking out and defending children and promoting their rights. They are the most important in God’s kingdom, (Matt.18.1 -5, Mark 9.33-37, Luke 9.46-48) and have a place of honor that must never be taken away from them. [,]

(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times, in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

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