After 100 years, Children's Day isn't all celebration

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After 100 years, Children's Day isn't all celebration

Lee Yang-hee, founder and president of the International Child Rights Center, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the center in central Seoul on Monday in the light of the 100th anniversary of Children's Day in Korea this year. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Lee Yang-hee, founder and president of the International Child Rights Center, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the center in central Seoul on Monday in the light of the 100th anniversary of Children's Day in Korea this year. [PARK SANG-MOON]

When author Bang Jeong-hwan dedicated today as Children’s Day exactly 100 years ago, beating international organizations by a few decades, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and under occupation by a foreign power.
Since then, the country has risen to become one of the 10 most affluent nations in the world, a pioneer in technology and the producer of internationally acclaimed pop culture.
But money can’t buy happiness and Korean society's faults can't be ignored, especially how they affect children.
“There are indicators that say happiness for children in Korea is the lowest,” said Lee Yang-hee, founder and president of the International Child Rights Center (InCRC), speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Monday. “Korea had the highest suicide rate at one point, and that really says a lot about the country.”
Suicide has been the top cause of death for young people in Korea since 2007.  
Brutal child abuse cases have made headlines for years. In October 2020, a 16 month-old toddler died after prolonged and severe physical abuse and neglect by her adoptive parents. In June 2020, a child was found dead in his home after being locked in a suitcase by his stepmother.
Five years earlier, an 11-year-old girl appeared barefoot in Incheon after having escaped imprisonment in her own house for two years, setting off a national search for other children who might be similarly oppressed.
Lee, who earned a Ph.D. in early childhood special education for the handicapped at the University of Missouri-Columbia and is a professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University, has seen with her own eyes the most vulnerable children as UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar from 2014 to 2020 and chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from 2007 to 2011.  
In 2009, Lee was awarded the Order of Civil Merit, the highest award given to a civilian in Korea, for her work.  
Speaking with the paper on the 100th anniversary of Children’s Day in Korea, Lee stressed there is something everyone can do, whether they are a global leader or a parent at home, to protect the rights of a child.
“When we ask the children, what are the reasons for their unhappiness, it’s academic pressure, peer pressure, bullying in school, discrimination of all sorts and adults not respecting their views, not listening to them,” Lee said. “That’s where we have to begin: we must treat children with respect, as human beings, with full integrity.”
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Lee at the InCRC headquarters in central Seoul on Monday. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.  
Q. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Children’s Day in Korea, tell us what it means to you personally, and how you think the concept of “rights of children” has evolved in Korea.

A. It’s hard to believe that we had Children’s Day enacted 100 years ago. This was during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in 1922. It precedes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, the League of Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1959, the basis for which was the Declaration of the Rights of the Child drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, in 1924. So Korea had the idea of children’s rights before many in the Western community did. At the time, I think Bang knew that children in Korea needed to be treated as very important citizens, so they could be well equipped to lead Korea out of the Japanese occupation.  
What do you make of children’s rights in Korea today, especially in light of domestic child abuse cases?

What is very unique about the situation in Korea is that 80 percent of child abuse in Korea takes place at home. It is very high, and it says a lot about our society. Our society is very competitive, hostile and rigid, and it’s polarized. This is less the case for younger Koreans now, but older-generation Koreans lived in an age where success was the only thing that mattered. There was a saying that went, if you like to play, you will become a beggar. Play was taboo. But play therapy, which is something we take as a psychotherapeutic approach for children, is also much needed for adults in their daily lives. Without play, they come home stressed and are more likely to take out their stress at home, including on their children.
Where do you begin to address these problems?
A high prevalence of children abused at home are infants and toddlers. That says something about parents not having the skills, or knowledge, about child rearing. One resolution would be an expansion of home visitation programs for all families with children aged younger than two.  
Korean society is changing day by day, and it’s no longer a homogenous society. How can we help protect the rights of children from multi-ethnic backgrounds?

Our society must tackle the discrimination issue first. We accepted settlers from Afghanistan a few months ago, and what did we see? Korean parents holding signs at a school to protest against some of the Afghan children studying there. We’ve also seen parents of children with disabilities kneel before their neighbors to beg for their consent to build a school for students with special needs. What would these children grow up seeing? Would they get a sense of belonging? When we speak of rights of children here, we should be speaking of all the children who live within the territory of Korea.  
Children are especially vulnerable during states of emergency and crises, as the war in Ukraine reminds us. What is the message you have for global leaders and ordinary citizens on what they can do to protect the basic rights of children affected by crises?

I was very heartened to read that people around the world have been reserving Airbnbs in Ukraine [without actually showing up at the Airbnb so that their payments go to the hosts as a kind of donation]. I think that’s something that ordinary citizens can do. Remember the little girl who sang “Let it Go” from “Frozen” in a bomb shelter in Ukraine? That is who children are – we have to give them that hope. Education and school is the only normalcy that can be brought to children in war zones and IDP [internally displaced person] camps. Schools are something that will bring constancy to these children, they are where they can feel safe.
Many schools have closed for prolonged periods because of the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you see its effect on children?

The situation is very grave. In the two-plus years of the pandemic, social and emotional development of children has been severely impacted. Babies develop fastest in their first two years, and socializing starts then. But during the pandemic, children were taught to fear other children because of Covid-19. So we have a generation worldwide in early childhood, middle childhood and adolescent-hood, whose development has been hugely impacted.
The situation in Myanmar since the 2021 coup has not improved. How do you assess it?

The grave situation in Myanmar has been going on for a year and three months now. A lot of what is happening in Ukraine is happening in Myanmar: there are people being buried alive, attacks on schools, clinics, hospitals. There were Christmas eve attacks where many children were killed, burned alive and tortured. Children are now being kidnapped and arrested. Gender-based violence is a grave crime under international law, and yet it is being committed repeatedly in Myanmar.  
For two years, there hasn’t been a single resolution against Myanmar in the UN Security Council. The UN system has failed, the international community has failed, our government has failed. The situation in Myanmar is not a domestic affair [limited to Myanmar], and it will have regional and global implications. 
When you were appointed UN special rapporteur, Koreans were very proud because you were the first person from the country to take the job. What would you like to tell children worldwide who may look to you as a role model?

I’d like to share something that my mother used to tell me: "Never think that because you are a woman you cannot do anything. Because you are woman, there is a lot more you can do." There are times when you have to be very pushy and aggressive, but there are also times when you have to be very sweet, because that can get you a lot further than being very pushy.  

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