“What does a government reap that sows students in the ground?”,
“A government that murders our children does not deserve our forgiveness much less our silence”
(Banners in the marches for Ayotzinapa)
The case of the missing students from Ayotzinapa uncovered a terrible reality that leads any mother and father to wonder: What future will my children have? As in many other areas concerning human rights in the country, legislative measures are being considered that do not guarantee real changes for the child and youth population. Since September, when President Enrique Peña Nieto sent bill to the Senate, children’s rights have been subject to public discussions. He asserted that with this legislative project, “Mexico will comply with its ethical obligation towards all children and adolescents”. Furthermore, it will comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Mexico signed and ratified in 1990. This legally binding document is the first international instrument to recognize the cultural, economic and social as well as civil and political human rights of all people under the age of 18. The Convention also includes children´s rights to a free compulsory primary education and specifies the right “to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”.
The president´s bill was criticized, because it treated the children and adolescents as objects in need of protection instead of subjects having rights. Consequently, the House of Representatives changed 106 of the 141 original articles, before approving it on September 29. This new law offers the opportunity to review the situation and the rights of the children and adolescents in Mexico, including the rights they already have and those they lack.
An aspect of many children’s lives, which is frequently subject to debate and is also addressed in the new law, is their labor. Presenting his bill, the president explained that it is necessary “that our children be able to dedicate themselves to age-appropriate activities, such as learning, sports, games and leisure, in short, anything contributing to their education and integral personal development. Therefore, it is important that children and adolescents under the age of 15 do not work.” He added that when minors find themselves obliged to work they face worse opportunities for their future and threats to their personal security and ultimately their health. For these reasons, Peña Nieto presented a proposal to reform constitutional article 123 to the congress, which would raise the minimum age of employment from 14 to 15. This reform was implemented in July of this year.
In order to be able to evaluate the impact of this amendment, we need to analyze the current situation of child labor in Mexico. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), “in Mexico, according to the latest statistics published by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (Secretaría del Trabajo y Previsión Social; STPS), there are 3,035,466 children and adolescents between 5 and 17 years working in Mexico, which corresponds to a percentage of 10.5% of the population at this age […]. Of this total, 39% don´t attend school and 34.46% work more than 35 hours per week. Another 1,162,643 children and adolescents dedicate themselves fully to domestic work without attending school”. According to the Child Labor Unit of INEGI-STPS 2011, about 883,000 of the total of 3 million working children are younger than 14, which means that the proportion of child workers below the minimum age is very significant.
Regarding child labor the children themselves are rarely asked for their opinions, a fact that deprives them of their right of free expression and to make their own decisions. Therefore, the Organization for the Rights of Indigenous Children and Youth in Chiapas, Melel Xojobal, conducted a survey on child labor in San Cristóbal de Las Casas from 2000 to 2010 taking into account the children´s voices. They interviewed the children, their families and other social agents, such as vendors, NGO or religious organization employees, teachers and other citizens who have some kind of relation with the children. The survey shows that 66% of the children and 60% of their relatives, but only 19% of the other social agents are in favor of child labor. Furthermore, 71% of the children declare that it was their own decision to start working whereas in 29% of the cases it was the parents´ decision. This decision, however autonomous it may seem, must be considered in the context of the families´ often difficult economic situation, taking into account for example that 53% of the children use their income to cover their families´ basic needs, such as food, clothing and similar expenses.
Another critical point lies within the working conditions many children have to put up with (frequently on the streets without adult supervision). In 65% of cases the children say they are exposed to risks and 33% of those have already experienced a dangerous situation. “As a consequence […] the children´s working opportunities represent precarious conditions, such as inappropriate environments (night clubs, bars, places where illegal substances are consumed), excessively long working hours for their age, lack of rest or leisure time, financial exploitation or physical as well as psychological mistreatment by adults […]. The children are working without any social or legal protection”, concludes Melel Xojobal from its survey.
Considering these facts that already constitute the reality of many child workers under 14, one might doubt the positive impacts of an amendment that only raises the minimum age for work contracts. There is a high probability that this law will push more working children into illegality and increase the informal sector. Therefore, Melel Xojobal proposes giving the children more rights, instead of prohibiting something they can hardly avoid: “Denying the children the right to work and accordingly proper protection laws, will only obscure the actual situation and create more opportunities for exploitation. For, if their rights are not recognized there cannot be effective instruments to protect them. […] It is necessary to understand work as a dignified, socializing activity that encourages self esteem and responsibility, in order to be able to distinguish it from forms of exploitation (which should be eliminated).”
A topic linked to child labor is the right to education included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Melel Xojobal´s survey, 71% of the children working in San Cristóbal de Las Casas attend school, 20% dropped out for economic reasons and 9% have never attended. On a national level, Unicef presented figures in 2005 showing that 1.2 million children between 5 and 14 did not attend school; one out of ten had dropped out of primary education and two out of ten did not finish middle school, although the Mexican Constitution states the right of all children to pre-, primary and middle school education. Nevertheless, these facts are not only due to child labor. “Unicef found three basic educational issues: lack of accessibility, especially in rural areas; poor educational quality at many public schools, where 92% of the pupils in the country are taught; and the discrimination which many indigenous, disabled or female pupils suffer.”
The intercultural problem is also recognized in the documents of Melel Xojobal and the ILO. Melel Xojobal confirms that “the current type of formal education does not succeed in generating the indigenous working children´s interest and enthusiasm. According to them, the content and methods of public education do not take into account the indigenous peoples´ culture, context, knowledge or languages.” The ILO proposes the implementation of an intercultural focus within the national education system, which would imply that “teachers are trained especially to derive pedagogical benefit from cultural diversity in order to create respect for the other and to create an environment where the children and adolescents with different cultures and beliefs can enrich each other mutually by sharing the same educational space”.
Regarding the school system, it is worth mentioning that in Chiapas there is an alternative represented by the Autonomous Rebel Educational System of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), created primarily to better attend to the needs of indigenous children and adolescents. In hundreds of primary schools and one secondary school in each of the five “caracoles” (autonomous administrative centers), respectively, indigenous children and adolescents are taught according to their culture, language and the reality they live in their communities. Since these do not belong to the public school system, their pupils are not being considered as such in the official statistics.
Another problem that impedes some adolescents in the exercise of their right to education is teenage pregnancy. According to INEGI the percentage of teenage mothers rose from 18% in 1990 to 19.4% of all births in 2012. Some academics and politicians link this development to the political decisions made during this period. During the PAN (National Action Party) government from 2000 to 2012, sex education programs and access to contraceptives for those under age 19 were restricted or rather replaced by campaigns in favor of abstinence. Today, Lorena Cruz Sánchez, president of the National Institute for Women, calls teenage pregnancies in Mexico a “public health problem”. The new law obligates the state to enable pregnant adolescents to finish their school education. Nevertheless, in the new law the right to sex education remains restricted, since parents and guardians can still block it.
A significant part of the population´s health problems continues to derive from widespread poverty. Although Mexico is considered to be a medium-high income country, the distribution of wealth . The Unicef report “Achieving the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] with Equity” states that “between 2010 and 2012 the number of people living in poverty rose from 52.8 to 53.3 million. The percentage of people living in poverty sent from 46.1% in 2010 to 45.5% in 2012. […] While in 2012, 53.8% of the under-18 population suffered from poverty, 45.5% of the total and 41.3% of the adult population were in poverty, which shows that poverty is a more significant problem in households with children.” This situation intensifies even more in rural areas, where 66.9% of the minors under 18 lived in poverty in 2012. Such living conditions can have a serious impact on the children´s integral development and health. According to Unicef “the chronic malnutrition or developmental delays of children under the age of 5 have diminished to half the rate of 1988, amounting at 13.6% and a total of 1.5 million affected children. Nevertheless, the national average holds significant regional disparities, ranging from 19.2% in the south to 8.9% in the north of the country. The highest rate of chronic malnutrition can be found in the southern rural areas where almost 3 out of 10 children under age 5 are affected.” At least, there are reported advances in the fight against infant mortality: “between 1990 and 2012 the mortality rate of children under the age of 5 […] has diminished by 61%, from 41 to 16.1 of each 1,000 live births”.
A last point to make concerning children´s rights is the violence many of them are confronted with. According to the Unicef report the children´s and adolescents’ rate or mortality by homicide has risen between 2000 and 2011, from 2.3 to 3.9 minors per 100,000 inhabitants. These figures are “linked to the context of increasing violence deriving from the fight against as well as within organized crime for many years. […] One of the roots of violence against children and adolescents is the general social perception that they are basically the adults’ possession. As a consequence, this form of violence is not only often accepted by the society but even constitutes a ´natural´ and hence ´invisible´ phenomenon.”
One of the forms of violence that especially children and adolescents suffer from is bullying in school. According to a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mexico takes the first place in the international ranking of school bullying cases in primary education. Bullying can appear in form of verbal, psychological or physical violence and is increasingly linked to social networks. Psychologists explain that the victims suffer from low self esteem or insomnia, achieve lower grades or drop out of school completely. Further symptoms can be that the children and adolescents stop eating, lose weight, are extremely anxious and irritable, injure themselves critically, experience grave emotional conflicts and depressions that in the worst case can even lead to suicide. Accordingly, the suicide rate of children and adolescents has risen alarmingly in the last years. The new law targets this problem by introducing penalties of up to 100,000 pesos (about 7,000 USD), or double in case of repetition, for officials or employees of educational, sports or cultural institutions where cases of bullying are not punished, or are tolerated or encouraged.
Through the new legislation the Mexican State recognizes the particularly vulnerable situation of children and adolescents in the country. In addressing this issue there are two main obstacles. Firstly, a major part of the violence against children derives from structural problems (economic, political and social context)that are omnipresent and accepted by society. Secondly, this violence is often concealed due to fear of reprisals by the aggressors, who can be close persons such as family members or teachers. In conclusion, effective measures that are taken in order to guarantee the children and adolescents’ integral development and also recognize their rights should go further than making legislative amendments. A profound and multidimensional, cultural change is necessary.
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Cintia has two siblings and attends the 9th grade. Since she was small she has worked together with her mother at the market selling CD´s. She works on weekends and some afternoons during the week. This way, they earn about 200 to 300 Pesos (14-21 USD) a day, which they partly spend on food and partly save. “As my mom always says: Money doesn’t fall from the sky but you have to earn by in the sweat of your brow.” She participates in workshops conducted by Melel Xojobal, where she learns for example how to make candles. She is also an active member of the NATs (Association of working children). When she grows up she wants to work in a hospital. She criticizes the existing medical services and wants to help people with scarce resources without charging them money. “It´s a profession in which you can give much”, she says.
At home Daira babysits her two siblings. In the evenings she attends school and in the mornings she works selling textiles at the market. In her opinion, she learns more at work than she does at school, because “there they don´t teach well”. She would like to obtain a better education but there is not enough money to attend a better school. When she grows up she wants to be a nurse: “Working as a nurse means to me helping other poor people.”