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The Child—What Sort of Human?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

Extract

The rights of the child [are] the first rights of citizenship.

—Herbert Hoover's “Children's Charter”

The assumption that children are not citizens is deeply rooted in our civic traditions.

—Bill Bell, “Are Children Citizens?”

The rubbish dump is close to where they live, but there is little money to be made there and it involves plenty of risks. The rats, the filth and the smell are all deeply unappealing; the risk of injury and infections from broken glass or jagged metal is high. Selling food is another option, but there are start-up costs…. In comparison with the jobs available, prostitution is well paid…. Without the school-leaving certificates… necessary for any sort of office or shop work …, the children's only other option, besides sorting rubbish, is begging, which is seen as a poor choice as earnings fluctuate greatly.

—H. Montgomery

Human rights doctrine defines its brief inclusively to encompass “all members of the human family” (Universal Declaration, preamble). But the vantage point from which human interactions are viewed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), although it invokes the family metaphor, is partial: all humans “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (art. 1). This disjunction between inclusive membership and partial perspective encapsulates the position of children in human rights doctrine: they are included in the broad scope of protection but peripheral to the framing conception of agency. The particular conception of “human” motivating the doctrine is restrictive in other ways relevant to childhood: article 1 of the UDHR states, “All humans … are endowed with reason and conscience,” which is manifestly not true unless “endowed” is interpreted to indicate a capability rather than an ontological state. But “endowed” suggests a current reality, not a future possibility. As the Brazilian delegation to the UDHR drafting process wryly noted, “[U]nfortunately it is not exactly true that all men are endowed by nature with reason and conscience” (qtd. in Morsink 297). And it is certainly not true that all children are. How, then, do children fit into the human rights project?

Type
Little-Known Documents
Information
PMLA , Volume 121 , Issue 5 , October 2006 , pp. 1526 - 1535
Copyright
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2006

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References

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