A Review of The Youngest Citizens: Children’s Rights in Latin America

The Yawning Gap Between Theory and Practice

by | Apr 1, 2020

The Youngest Citizens: Children’s Rights in Latin America by Amy Risley (Routledge: 2020)

The gap between theory and practice is not a promising place to start a book on children’s human rights.  We already know that  children’s legal entitlements on paper and on-the-ground practice in communities across the globe differ sharply. Ordinary citizens, whatever their walk of life, are daily confronted with ringing pro child protestations by political leaders that contrast with all-too evident child rights violations—from child abuse to homelessness and lack of access to health care—in both wealthy and poor countries. Experts, be they policy makers or scholars, are equally familiar with the near universal ratification of child-rights treaties and constitutional protections of children’s rights that stand in stark contradiction to devastating statistics on child poverty, morbidity and violence worldwide.  

Within this broad space between child rights theory and child protection practice, however, there is a diverse landscape replete with intriguing, context-specific history and detail. Norms evolve because of alliances between differently placed social and political constituencies who, in turn, are responsive to cultural and historical legacies surrounding them.    This is the terrain in which Amy Risley situates her concise, multifaceted and carefully nuanced account of children’s rights in Latin America.  In just over a hundred pages, she manages to summarize key currents in the general evolution of normative approaches to children and their place in South and Central American society, and to contextualize these within detailed accounts of particular topics and localities.  An accessible and engaged description of key children’s rights issues and their relevance to Latin America, Risley’s The Youngest Children deserves attention by teachers, journalists and other interested professionals concerned with the circumstances of some of the most vulnerable members of Latin American societies.

The book starts with a historical account of the evolution of normative frameworks relating to children across the region, an account that is in dialogue with key social institutions of particular relevance to the topic.  Not surprisingly, these institutions include the colonial state and the Church, both of whose primary child-related efforts, in different ways, were intrusive and often coercive, targeting impoverished children and their families. The book describes how, over time and in response to political developments, these foundational frameworks evolved to absorb more rights-based principles.

The narrative illustrates this evolution in two contrasting South American countries, Argentina and Uruguay.  In both cases, Risley situates the collective engagement with children’s rights, and their relevance to a broader human rights discourse, in the tumultuous history of the country. She describes how years of progressive and enlightened governance and social progress gave way to dark periods of authoritarian dictatorship that in turn drove social movements demanding a return to democracy.  She shows how Argentina reacted to the generals and their “dirty war” by generating a vibrant set of civil society movements, most famously epitomized by the legendary Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, grandmothers searching for the offspring of children murdered by the Argentinian junta.  The Abuelas, along with many other progressive organizations, challenged state secrecy and totalitarian rule, demanding transparency, accountability and—most relevant to the topic at hand—the enforcement of children’s rights for families decimated by dictatorship.

A particularly noteworthy aspect of the Argentinian account is the intertwining of a social history of democratic militancy and rights based activism with a description of the evolution of a child-specific rights focus, a useful correction to the more usual account which isolates children’s rights reforms from the broader social context in which they are embedded.  We usefully learn how the democratic movement against “political  disappearances” fed into a growing awareness of the needs of children who were “socially disappeared,” impoverished, institutionalized, exploited or neglected. This process, as the book makes clear, occurred through the medium of an integrated rights-based movement anchored in growing awareness of human rights in general and of the landmark UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed in 1989, in particular.

Like Argentina, Uruguay incorporated international children’s rights norms into its domestic legal architecture, transforming an oppressive and conservative colonial juvenile justice and child welfare apparatus into a forward-looking and rights-respecting framework promoting children’s rights.  The similarity between the two Southern Cone countries does not end there. Uruguay also built on a multi-stakeholder set of alliances between different social forces, bringing governmental and non-governmental entities into dialogue and collaboration with each other to reform laws and the very discourse used to describe children’s place and rights in society. However, by contrast with Argentina, Risley asserts that Uruguay faced a more persistent and harsh authoritarian legacy, one that transformed a previously stable and relatively egalitarian political democracy into a vicious police state with extraordinarily high numbers of political prisoners and dramatic socio-economic inequality.  And its reaction against this legacy was more tempered and gradual than the Argentine counterpart—human rights were widely promoted, but economic policies addressed gaping inequality including child poverty and exploitation were more measured, leaving gradual social norm change rather than proactive civil society mobilization to provide the impetus for incremental social transformation.  The discussion of evolving children’s rights norms in both these chapters is fascinating and instructive.

The second half of the book moves from the normative focus of the early chapters to a narrative that foregrounds empirical aspects of children’s lives in Latin America.  Different chapters in the book address child labor, child soldiering, child exploitation and trafficking and cross-border migration, in each case situating the discussion firmly within a particular spatial setting.  We learn, thus, about the particularities of child labor in Bolivia, and the distinctive approach taken by its long-time President Evo Morales, a child laborer himself, to the complex and embattled question of children’s right to work or not to work.  The discussion is nuanced and well-grounded in local specificities, detailing the growth of working children’s agency as an important element in the formulation of relevant policy and practice and as a powerful example of the distinctive contribution provided by children’s own voice in the formulation of official conduct.

The narrative provides an interesting set of counter arguments to the more prevalent child rights’ position which is fiercely critical of child labor and its negative impact on educational opportunity, child health and future employment prospects. However, in my view, the author presents a somewhat partial account.  The robust debate about whether child labor is a result of poverty, as the author implies, or instead a driver of poverty, as often argued, is not addressed nor is the literature that questions the economic contribution of children’s work to household income.  Similarly, studies that correlate rates of child labor to quality of education offered (the better the latter, the lower the former) are not discussed, even though they raise critical questions about poor families’ evaluation of opportunity costs associated with the time children spend in school.

Similar points can be made about the other, topically focused chapters. The account of child soldiering for example, set predictably within the context of the long and brutal Colombian civil war, rightly links the phenomenon to poverty and to the fissures within a class-ridden, drug- infested and deeply inegalitarian society; but again one might have hoped for a more nuanced and empirically based discussion of the subject, to understand which sections of the population were particularly at risk of recruitment, which responded best to the demobilization efforts, and what the prospects going forward are for a potentially lost generation of child soldiers.  The concise and clear account of key international legal developments relating to children in armed conflict sets the context well but  some of the distinctive and innovative aspects of the reintegration process adopted in Colombia (by contrast with Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone or Uganda for example) might have merited more attention than they receive.

Child sexual exploitation is examined in the context of two contrasting countries. The first is Costa Rica where vigorous government action has achieved considerable success targeting international child sex tourists  (though the impact in terms of rates of recruitment, exploitation and conviction of exploiters is not discussed, limiting the reader’s ability to contextualize the efficacy of the government’s multi-faceted interventions). The second is Mexico where child sexual exploitation, by contrast with Costa Rica, is embedded in a broader set of dynamics relating to crime, cross border migration and transnational labor exploitation. 

The final substantive chapter, before the brief conclusion, continues with the discussion of child mobility, building on the points made in the discussion of child sexual exploitation but expanding to consider the broader set of factors that impact Latin American children’s rights in the cross-border migration context.  Having started at the southern tip of Latin America, in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina and Uruguay, the book ends up at the northern frontier, beyond Latin America, spilling over into the United States, as it briefly considers U.S. immigration policies at the border and their devastating impact on Central American children.   The discussion usefully links the contemporary phenomenon of Central American child migration to the long history of U.S. involvement in the region, an important complement to the earlier discussion about the multiple national influences responsible for the continent’s child right regime.

At the conclusion of her survey, Risley places a particular emphasis on the United States’ legacy of enduring violence, which she rightly  relates to two phenomena: first, U.S. military support of brutal Central American dictatorships in the  last quarter of the 20th century and, more recently, U.S.  deportation of young Central American immigrants convicted of crimes back to their ancestral homes.  Where the first U.S. export contributed to long-term undermining of the rule of law and vibrant democratic structures in Central America with enduring spin-offs in contemporary corruption, kleptocracy and sharp socio-economic inequalities, the second exported a distinctively U.S. form of urban gang warfare and drug-fueled criminality to a region ill-equipped to counter it.  The chapter shows how these enduring post-colonial remnants of cold war conflict and human rights violations continue to be powerful drivers of the extreme criminal violence and instability that has forced thousands of Central American children to flee their homes, only to find themselves denied access to justice or adequate protections by profoundly anti-immigrant state policies north of the Mexican  border. 

To conclude, the book presents a speedy but effective panorama of the multiple pressures, movements and interests that together sustain the contradictory and contrasting attitudes to children across the continent.  Just as Latin American children’s rights norms are the product of multiple historical and social influences, so too are contemporary practices affecting the region’s children.  And in each case, as The Youngest Citizens makes crystal clear, the contradictions and challenges remain pressing and urgent, for the still fragile democracies in Latin America and for all their citizens, old and young.

Fall/Winter 2019-2020Volume XIX, Number 2

Jacqueline Bhabha is FXB Director of Research, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the editor of Children Without A State (2011), author of Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age (2014), and editor of Human Rights and Adolescence ( 2014).

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