At least I had a lot of legroom on the 10 hour flight from Jakarta. That outweighs the unfortunate presence of the smelliest man on the plane who wound up sitting next to me. The plane was packed with a group of at least 200 Indonesian tourists, men and women all dressed in matching outfits of white trousers and pale blue jackets or blouses. All had Indonesian flags sewn on the left breast pocket, although some poor saps did not have the Indonesian red and white flag but the red, white and blue flag of the Netherlands with “INDONESIA” covering the blue strip at the bottom. Most of them were clearly first-time passengers. Many had their names printed on their carry-on luggage, others had large photos of themselves pasted on their bags, and almost all of them were pushing me to get on board first, as though they were worried the plane would take off without them. Upon disembarking, I became everyone’s favourite passenger because I was the only one who could reach their luggage in the overhead compartments.
The sun is rising over the barely-visible foothills off in the distance, and the brightness of this morning is a sad reminder that I have not seen the sun since last Thursday. The Jakarta workshop lasted all day long for 5 days, and by the time we ended each day, the sun had long gone. I feel like going for a walk on the tarmac instead of waiting in this terminal for another 6 hours. Just bought a ridiculously expensive coffee, served by 3 women from the Philippines. At first glance, the division of migrant workers in this airport seems to be cashier or coffee maker for the Filipinos and janitorial services for the Bangladeshis.
A kid just ran past me, making his way towards the window, smushing his hands and face against it as he sees the planes on the runway. He’s waiving at one of the airplanes and yelling to his father, “Can we doh on de aiwplane?” Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I read in a book a few months ago that the worldwide number of children dying from preventable diseases dropped below 10 million a year for the first time since statistics were being collected by UNICEF in the 1960s. Back then the number was closer to 20 million. Owing to the population growth around the world, I guess that can be considered as “progress.” I’ll be in Iraq tomorrow where – what was it? 500,000 or 5 million? – children died as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf War. It gets to a point where the numbers are so huge they are difficult to imagine. Ten million is about 4 times the population of my home town of Montreal. And it’s not just death, it’s millions more children who do not have access to education, the highest attainable standard of health, adequate food and housing, and who are exploited for their labour or used as soldiers or sex workers.
It’s enough to discourage you. But the 20th anniversary of the CRC should be a time for reflection on why we are doing the work we do as human rights educators. (Waiting in airport terminals is another way to reflect on this kind of stuff.) As I think back to the human rights educators I have met by traveling overseas (and in Canada) over the years, I’m comforted by the little stories of people working to make-the-world-a-better-place because the old children-are-our-future-thing actually means something. Madame Echnaya in Casablanca who created a centre for young girls who’d left school but can now learn a trade to support themselves. Abdourahmane, a journalist in Niger who tirelessly wrote about the working conditions of girls who were bonded into domestic labour. Murare, Deepak and others at the NHRC in Nepal who have worked in schools to educate children about their rights. My friends in the Canadian Play it Fair program who teach children with a less than ideal home life about human rights values through games. The educators in Yemen who have strengthened the leadership skills of countless girls over the years. Auntie Sarah in Ghana who fought took and nail to break down traditional practices which were harmful to girls and women.
The list goes on and on. This week we begin a virtual conference on children’s rights, and if I were to answer the second question – Why do you think it’s important to celebrate children’s rights? – one answer is that I would want every child to have a childhood as happy as mine was,. It was a childhood where I never went hungry or cold, I always had a place to sleep, I always felt safe, I was always taken care of when sick, I had the chance to go to school even though I didn’t like it, and most of all, I was loved.
The kid who waved at the airplanes earlier is being bounced on his father’s knee, his giggles resonating in the emptiness of the terminal. He’s one lucky kid.