Seen but not heard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

There was the boy who was kept in a suitcase, the father who axed his wife and daughters to death, the mother who jumped from a tower in her housing estate, taking her two children with her.

These and other recent horrifying cases of both child abuse and the murder/suicides that have occurred in Hong Kong make painful reading. Then there are the children who suffer back pain because they have too many books to carry in their backpacks, the youngsters who don't have enough play time in a competitive and stressful educational environment and the adolescents who suffer from self-abuse and anorexia due to low self-esteem. And those who want to end it all through suicide.

While government and non-government organisations tackle these issues through a variety of departments and committees, there is a growing number of local bodies who feel that we are letting our children down.

In 1994, Hong Kong signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but, more than 12 years later and despite the urging of the United Nations and local bodies involved with children's rights, it still lacks a children's commission - a government-funded body that would have the same level of independence as the ombudsman, for example, to solely cover issues and policies of children in Hong Kong.

Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights, along with 18 other NGOs and legislators, would like to see that change. They feel that children, whose rights as individuals are often overlooked, need to have their voices heard.

'There has been growing support over the past 10 years for a children's commission, and this is the right moment to do more,' said Ms Wong.

'Every five years the Hong Kong government has to report to the United Nations on Hong Kong children's right to survival, protection, development and participation. While we are very high in the world in terms of low child-mortality, in terms of children's right to participate we are far behind.'

Ms Wong says because of 11 government bureaus and many other departments, the interests of children don't come under one umbrella, but are split. For example, immigration of children comes under the Immigration Department, education under the Education and Manpower Bureau and so on.

'Child abuse is one of the most serious problems faced by children in Hong Kong. A children's commission would be able to appoint specialists from both the professional and welfare sectors to cover this issue.'

In Hong Kong, says Ms Wong, the government in recent years has created a women's commission, a commission for the elderly as well as a youth commission, for young adults from the ages of 15 to 24. But no children's commission.

Children's commissions have been established in countries such as New Zealand, Scotland and England, and on the mainland in recent years. The mainland's commission is more government-run than the others. Britain took almost 20 years from signing the UN convention to creating a commission, says Ms Wong.

'We have waited over 10 years ...' she trails off hopefully.

In May, welfare legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, along with the support of fellow lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, who represents the medical sector, will put forward a non-binding motion in the Legislative Council pushing for a children's commission and commissioner.

'In such a commercial society such as Hong Kong, a lot of public policies don't take in perspectives of the child. Their welfare is not taken care of even though the policy is well-intended,' said Mr Cheung.

'Child poverty has reached a dangerous level. Over one-fifth of our children are living in poverty. The government has come up with some measures to tackle the problem but are these resources going to right places? When money is given to NGOs they may be providing services to families in general and might not target specifically the poorer ones.

'There is a great need for child care,' he said. 'The current child care model doesn't look at services from the child's perspective. In cases of domestic violence, for example, the focus is often on mending the relationship [within the family].

'The focus is on the victim, which in the majority of cases is the mother. But children who observe violence, while they may not be physically hurt, will be emotionally and mentally hurt and their needs go unheeded. The current policy may not look at the arrangements from the perspective of the needs of the children.'

Mr Kwok backs Mr Cheung's argument and says that 'the interests of children in Hong Kong have been overlooked for many years. Although we have the Social Welfare Department, the approach to policy involving children is piecemeal'.

Priscilla Lui Tsang Sun-kai of Against Child Abuse cites two examples of government committees for children's interests run by the government but says that they are unable to act on issues outside their policy areas.

'We do have some committees but they are not high-powered enough, they are only consultative, for example, the Committee on Child Abuse under the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau, which is chaired by Paul Tang [Kwok-wai], the head of the Social Welfare Department. What is outside their jurisdiction won't be taken on by them.'

Then there's the Children's Rights Forum, under the Home Affairs Bureau, which is chaired by its deputy secretary, Donald Tong Chi-keung.

'This platform is merely a sharing forum without the power to take vigorous cross-departmental action nor has this platform been authorised to look at policies' impact assessment,' she said.

Against Child Abuse also has been campaigning for the introduction of a mechanism to deal with serious and fatal child abuse cases.

'We are urging for such cases to be reviewed. [To find out] what has gone wrong, what is the trend,' said Mrs Lui.

'We do have indicators from the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, from the Social Welfare Department Registry and the BGCA [Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America] child-development index indicating that our family solidarity is seriously deteriorating with child abuse and domestic violence reports increasing drastically,' said Mrs Lui, reiterating the need for a children's commission to cover this issue.

'The HKU Household Survey indicated that for one reported cases of physical abuse, 99 cases have not been reported. Thus, the situation is seriously calling for vigorous improvement in all levels of prevention: tertiary, secondary and primary,' she said.

In 2004, 17 schoolchildren killed themselves in Hong Kong because of academic pressure or emotional problems. A Chinese University research survey in 2003 of almost 3,500 secondary school students showed a high tendency for local young children to consider committing suicide - almost 11 per cent.

A study by the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong in 2005 showed even higher figures - from 28 to 42 per cent of secondary school students had considered committing suicide.

The Home Affairs Bureau argues that, rather than having a children's commission, it is looking at setting up a family commission.

'As explained to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Hong Kong government has taken and will continue to attach high importance to protecting children's rights in considering any legislative or policy proposals,' a bureau spokesman said.

'Currently, we have specific laws dealing with different aspects of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As the convention covers areas of government policies that come under the purview of more than one bureau, relevant advisory boards, committees and stakeholders will advise the bureaus concerned in the process of policy formulation, as appropriate.

'In his policy address in 2006, the chief executive indicated that the government would seriously study whether we should set up an integrated, holistic and high-level family commission responsible for policies and initiatives relating to family support.'

Currently, such a study was being carried out, the spokesman said.

But advocates of a children's commission fear that the needs of Hong Kong's children could be swallowed up by a family commission.

'A family commission is quite a different matter,' Mr Cheung said. 'We take the family as being the main functional unit in society. So much so that we ignore its individual members, so a lot of the time the children's needs get submerged. I'm not against establishing a family commission but if we look at protection of the right of children then we need a separate children's commission.'

The Global Institute for Tomorrow, an Asian policy think-tank based in Hong Kong, completed a study last December for the Hong Kong Committee on the Rights of the Child, looking at the issues raised in setting up a children's commission.

Ian Hassall, from the office of the New Zealand Commissioner for Children, wrote to the institute arguing against the concept of a family commission, arguing that 'history is against such an idea'.

'Many things are done that are harmful to children that a children's commissioner can draw attention to and suggest ways in which they can be put forward, usually working with the children's family. I would strongly resist the idea that a children's commissioner function could be subsumed within a families commission. History is against such an idea. Children's interests do become submerged beneath those of adults when they are mixed.'

Anne Marden, honorary president of the Playright Children's Play Association, says that for far too long the official attitude to children is that they are just mini-adults. She also fears that with the breakdown of the family unit and a fast-paced society children are suffering.

'Children are a non-event as far as this government is concerned. Even education is done from the parents' point of view.

'Our children really are in trouble. Many have serious eating disorders, the child suicide rate is high, which shows that we are failing our children. They are not small adults.

'They have their own views, which can't be heard until we have a commissioner who absolutely concentrates on children who can tell the commission their needs.'