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Children’s rights and culture in the Pacific

© PAPA00083/Unknown
Girl at Umarakana village on Trobriand Islands in the Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

“Custom and human rights both concern rights. Human rights are understood to be the rights that are innate and inherent to each of us as individuals. Customary, traditional and cultural rights relate to our social mores as a distant people of community. They include the ownership of the land and natural resources, folklore, traditional knowledge and social systems. Both these species of rights belong to us by virtue of who and what we are. It follows that we will need to balance them with each other, if we wish to derive benefit from both…” –Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, former Vice-President of Fiji, 2006

More than many other parts of the world, the Pacific Islands remain a rich mosaic of different cultural identities, languages and traditions. For the people of these island nation states, the value of community structures in shaping identities and values remains strong and vibrant.

Yet for young people, who make up a large percentage of the population, the challenges of growing up in a world in transition are many. Their identity is being shaped by the competing forces of culture, hierarchy and tradition with the growing influences of modernity, globalization and consumer culture. In many countries, young people face enormous social upheaval as they try to map out their future. High youth employment, low self-esteem, limited educational opportunities and growing poverty are just some of the hurdles – often confounded by the roles, expectations and pressures expected from their families and communities.

In October 2006, the University of the South Pacific, in collaboration with UNICEF, organized a one-day seminar to better understand the dynamics of children’s rights and culture in the Pacific. The issue at hand was how best to fulfil children rights while being cognizant of the unique cultural context in which they are formed.

UNICEF commissioned three papers by prominent academics to guide the seminar discussions and to generate thinking on how to better engage young people in playing an active and constructive role in determining the right paths for their lives. 

From those papers emerged emphasis on critical areas that need to be addressed: How to enhance state policy to better define and protect child rights? How to reinforce positive attitudes and ownership within communities, especially in partnership through civil society, church groups and young people?

© EAP3392 /Gabriel Accascina
Children making flower garland, Samao

The papers

What cultural rights mean for children is the subject of the paper prepared by Dr. Elise Huffer. She examines how cultural rights are represented within international conventions, especially the Convention on the Rights of the Child. She argues that part of the difficulty in affirming cultural rights is that, as collective rights,  they are often not as well articulated as individual rights and in part that the rights of the collective often appear at odds with ‘universal’ human rights, even though they are the basis for them. The paper presents recommendations on how to strengthen the connectedness of cultural rights for children, especially through language and education. By using concrete examples, the case is made that by better defining cultural policy, cultural rights can become an integral part of all rights of children and young people.

Dr. Chris Mc Murray, in a paper on young people’s participation in the Pacific, explores the challenges young people face, especially in education and employment. She argues that high risk behaviour, including substance abuse and suicide, often stem from low self esteem, which is perpetuated by authoritarian parenting methods, gender discrimination and disempowerment. Using case study examples, she argues that greater youth participation in decision making can raise confidence, give new skills and reduce high-risk behaviour. She recommends that young people’s participation should be broadened and better incorporated into a wider range of community activities, both formally and informally to better give voice to their needs and perspectives.

As Dr. Vanessa Griffen, in her paper entitled gender relations in Pacific cultures and their impact on the growth and development of children, looks at how colonialism and globalization have greatly impacted on traditional economic and social systems in the Pacific Islands. She argues that the impact on land ownership, cultural practices, use of labour, social mores and relationships have been profound, especially within the family. The paper looks at  how issues such as violence against children, sexual abuse, puberty, sexuality and male dominance, puberty, teenage pregnancies, marriage and consent all play out on the lives of children, especially girls. Dr Griffen assesses how gender relations in contemporary society have impacted on children and how unequal economic and social relations have affected families, leading to an increase in domestic and gender-based violence.

The discussion

The seminar participants concluded that children’s and young people’s identities – their ‘place’ – within their families, communities and societies needs strengthened cultural connectedness through greater respect for/use of indigenous language, education (especially in early childhood) and meaningful participation in community and public institution activities.

As well, there is a need to address inconsistencies in cultural practice (especially inequalities related to sex, age, disability, etc.) using young people’s position as a benchmark, with separate determinations for girls and boys.

And finally, there are societal levers that need to be pulled for appropriate positive development. Key to this are state policy, norms and standards – but with a clear appreciation of their limitations within the context of Pacific cultures. Influencing community values and those of civil society and relevant institutions, such as churches, is also vital. What is crucial is a systemic approach and making the best use of creative self-interest.

Pacific people love, nurture and value their children. Much of the culture of the Pacific specifically reinforces the rights of children. But some of it creates conflicts. Culture everywhere in the world is dynamic, and clearly it is the will of Pacific people that children should enjoy all the rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by all Member States of the Pacific), including their cultural rights.

The authors

Dr. Elise Huffer is Associate Professor and Acting Director of the Institute of Pacific Studies Publications/ Pacific Studies Program at the Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance based in Suva.  Her research areas include governance, gender, politics, and Pacific thoughts and ethics.  In addition to her academic teaching and research, she has worked as a consultant for many development organizations including UNIFEM, UNDP and the Pacific Forum Secretariat.

Dr. Vanessa Griffen has extensive experience in gender, development and culture in the Pacific Islands.  She has worked as an advisor to the Ministry of Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Reduction, UNIFEM, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and NZ Agency for international Development amongst others. She has authored numerous publications and journals on issues related to women, globalisation and development.

Dr.Christine McMurray teaches at the Demography Department at the Australian National University. She has more than 30 years experience working in Pacific Islands on issues related to population, demographics, gender, and health.  She has written extensively on these subjects and has served as an advisor to many development organizations including UNICEF, UNFPA, ILO, ADB, Aus AID, and the World Bank.



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