Role of United States in Improvement of Children's Life: Issue Child Labor and Soldier Practices


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The United States should assist in efforts to improve children’s lives by intervening in child labor and child soldier practices. For this to happen, one must: be aware of what human rights are, understand that children cannot advocate for themselves, be aware of cultural differences throughout the world, and know what the United States has done so far for child safety. The Motorcycle Diaries, a 2004 film directed by Walter Salles, depicts many social injustices that occurred in South America and how Ernesto “Che” Guevara reacted to them. Human rights are inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status; they include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Children and adolescents are in need of advocates because they are unable to look after their own interests. Parents are supposed to do this for them, unfortunately, some don’t or simply can’t. Differences in cultural values and can exacerbate the underlying conflict unless they are well understood. Throughout the history of the United States, the child welfare system has evolved according to changing beliefs and attitudes about what role government should play in the protection and care of abused and neglected children.

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In order for the United States to improve children lives by intervening in child labor and child soldier practices, one must be aware of what human rights are. A human right can be defined as “a right that is believed to belong justifiably to every person”. This statement is powerful because it implies that literally every person alive is entitled to certain unalienable rights. These rights include life, liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to work and education. Everyone alive is entitled to these rights, without discrimination. Many of the basic ideas that constitute the human rights movement developed from the aftermath of World War II and the events of the Holocaust. These events led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948. Human rights violations occur when entities ignore or deny basic human rights. Furthermore, violations of human rights can occur when any entity breaches any part of the UDHR treaty, or any other applicable international humanitarian law. It is important to note that article 39 of the UN Charter designates the UN Security Council as the sole authority that has the power to determine if human rights violations have occurred.

It is critical to understand that human rights violations are monitored by a variety of agencies that include the United Nations, national entities and governments, and many independent non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). These organization’s purpose is to collect evidence of suspected human rights abuses and, if need be, take action to enforce human rights laws. Some major examples include wars crimes, crimes against humanity, and the use of child soldiers; these types of breaches represent the most serious of human rights violations.

Perhaps the most fundamental concepts with children and human rights is understand that children are unable to advocate for themselves. Thus, children and adolescents need both systemic advocacy and advocacy as individuals. Advocacy of individual children remains a vital task for their parent or guardians, but unfortunately, some won’t or can’t. Systemic advocation incolves scrutiny of government services and programs, lobbying of government on behalf of children and adolescents, and dealing with complaints to ensure their safety and well-being.

“Children and young people are a relatively powerless group in society. Adults very often make significant decisions about children without consulting them or seeking to involve their participation in the decision-making process. They are rarely informed or consulted about new laws and policies which will impact upon them” (1).

Thus, Children largely rely on adults to speak on their behalf and protect their rights. The vulnerability of children stems from by cultural norms, societal attitudes and legal processes. This is what often leads to children being taken advantage of, as they are easy targets for military recruitment due to their susceptibility to influence. Unfortunately, some are forcibly recruited while others choose to join. Many are forcibly recruited due to: low socioeconomic lifestyle, little to no education or employment, the cultural standardization of war, revenge (such as seeing friends and relatives killed), and expectations of a rite of passage. Young soldiers that survive combat often suffer from mental illness and other behavioral issues. This frequently leads to a higher risk of poverty and unemployment in their adulthood. Research has also shown that the recruitment of children and adolescents, even those who don’t experience direct combat, are still at a substantially higher risk of suicide, mental disorders and drug use. Despite children and adolescent’s physical and psychological underdevelopment when compared to adults, there are still many reasons why they are recruited. Some main examples include: children being more willing than adults to fight for reasons such as honor, revenge and duty; they more obedient when compared adults and are thus much easier to control and manipulate. The sad reality is that child soldier recruiters disproportionately target youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds using marketing tactics that make military life seem appealing. Several scholars have argued that these marketing tactics exploit psychologically susceptible youth to emotion-driven decision-making.

With regards to human rights and social injustices involving children, it is absolutely imperative to be aware of cultural differences that exist throughout the world. These cultural differences can make conflicts worse, which is why one must have a good understanding of them. Consider the following:

“Each of us belongs to multiple cultures that give us messages about what is normal, appropriate, and expected. When others do not meet our expectations, it is often a cue that our cultural expectations are different. We may mistake differences between others and us for evidence of bad faith or lack of common sense on the part of others, not realizing that common sense is also cultural”(2).

This means that what is common to one group may seem counterintuitive or wrong to another group. Cultural differences are almost always a factor in conflict, whether it plays a big role or a small role. Conflicts that affect us on a personal level, where we hold our identities, always has cultural component. Thus, conflicts in other countries that involve war and child recruitment stem from fundamentally different ideals. Consider the following statement from a child recruited in a Cambodian conflict:

“I joined because my parents lacked food and I had no school… I was worried about mines but what can we do… I see young children in every unit… I’m sure I’ll be a soldier for at least a couple of more years. If I stop being a soldier I won’t have a job to do because I don’t have any skills. I don’t know what I’ll do”.(3)

This is an excellent example of how people from other backgrounds and cultures deal with conflict and adversities. One can see that people and their ideals are shaped by their backgrounds and experiences. Thus, conflicts can be said to occur when two groups cannot see eye to eye. In certain cultures, the children suffer the most due to things like child labor and recruitment.

In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che is portrayed as a selfless individual who places everyone’s needs above his own. This is evident when Che and Alberto met a communist couple in Desierto de Atacama, Chile. The couple proclaimed that they were kicked off their property by a land speculator, and that they left behind their son and family in search of work. This is a perfect example of how cultural differences can affect children in a negative way. The couple also explained that they were fleeing from law enforcement who wanted to jail them for being communist, and they were hoping to find work with Anaconda Mining Company because the work is so dangerous, they accept people from any political party. Che explains that: “It was one of the coldest night in my life, but also one which made me feel closer to this strange, for me anyway, human race”(4). After listening the couple’s tragic tale, Che and Alberto gave them a blanket and some coffee. Che even gave them fifteen dollars. Alberto later finds out that Che gave the couple the fifteen dollars, which greatly displeases him because he wanted to use the money to sleep with a prostitute. When they met the communist couple in Desierto de Atacama, Chile, Che was touched on a deep level by their story. Consider how Che actually traveled with the couple to the Anaconda Mining Company in Mina de Chuquicamata, Chile. He was disgusted by the treatment of the volunteer workers, and he yelled at the person in charge to get them some water. He even went as far as throwing a rock at the truck when it pulled away. Che’s birthday speech at the leper colony confirmed that he has indeed gone through an existential change. He explained that he feels that the people needlessly suffer, and that all of South America should be united under one country. He supported this idea by explaining that everybody was a decedent from the Mestizo race in Mexico. This was a key event in the film that led to his transformation from a naive medical school student into someone with a strong compassion for the people of Latin America. Witnessing firsthand what many of the people were experiencing was a driving force behind this transformation. He got to see varying cultures in his journey throughout South America, and he was touched on a personal level. As mentioned above, conflicts that affect us on a personal level always has cultural component.

Thus far, the United States of America has done a fantastic job in advocating for children’s rights through community programs and legislation. The most important federal law that restricts the employment and abuse of children is the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Child and adolescent labor under the FLSA are meant to protect their educational opportunities prohibit the employment into jobs that unhealthy and unsafe. FLSA restricts the hours that adolescents under 16 years of age can work and also lists dangerous occupations that are deemed too hazardous for them to perform. The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formed at the turn of the 20th century and is dedicated to the eradication of all child labor. By publishing information on the lives and working conditions of child workers, it was able to gain popular support for state-level child labor laws. These laws were usually went hand and hand with educational laws that were designed to keep youth in school until a specified age.

The widespread use of child labor at the turn of the 20th century was, unfortunately, a common sight in the United States. During 1930s, children and adolescents worked in a wide variety of dangerous occupations. Now, several decades later, the presence of child labor in the United States of America no longer exists. Putting children and adolescents at risk in the workforce has finally ceased. It is important to note during the 18th century, the arrival of a newborn child was viewed as a future laborer for the family, and school was not a priority. At the young age of 5, a child was expected to lend a helping hand with agricultural work and other crucial household chores. The farm-hand lifestyle was very common in the United States and required a large amount of tedious work, whether it was planting crops, feeding livestock, or fixing equipment. Larger families who had less work would commonly send their kids to other households to work as servents. The sad reality during these times was that most families could not afford the costs of raising a child without some form of child labor.

Thinking of the children by more than just labor potential has helped change the role of youth in the working-class culture. In conjunction with a greater awareness of the exploitive practices of some employers, this led to reform efforts that effectively ended widespread child labor in the USA. Unfortunately, reformers faced a hard battle against the legal system. The Constitution and its limited scope of powers proved to be the main obstacle to reform. The issue turned out to be a matter for the states to deal with.

Thus far, it has been demonstrated that when human rights are at stake, the United States has an obligation to assist in efforts to improve children’s lives by intervening in child labor and child soldier practices. Child abuse has unfortunately been a big part of many cultures. Some examples include the last days of world war 2 when Nazi Germany recruited children in the defense of Berlin as well as child soldiers of the democratic republic of Congo. Tackling this problem blindly is not the best idea. First, one must be aware of what human rights are, understand that children cannot advocate for themselves, be aware of cultural differences throughout the world, and know what the United States has done so far for child safety. Many of these concepts are reflected beautifully in The Motorcycle Diaries, when Che made the transformation from a young medical student to someone with a great compassion for the people of Latin America.

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