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Letter from Elsewhere: The Future Eaters

Letter from Elsewhere with Anne Else

The Future Eaters

It’s the clearly deliberate targeting of a school full of children that makes the Beslan hostage deaths and injuries so appalling. Bombing, shelling and setting off explosives in crowded buses, restaurants, markets, city squares and housing complexes is a surefire way to kill and maim children too.

It’s already happened times without number to Israelis and Palestinians, Chechens and Russians; it happened in Jakarta last week; and it’s currently happening almost every day in Iraq.

Best estimates are that for every US soldier who has died in Iraq, ten Iraqis have died. No one knows how many were children. Some of the bombers have been children themselves.

The perpetrators either deny that children were involved, or claim this is merely collateral damage, an unfortunate side-effect, because the real targets are adults and political structures. But every time, the outrage and grief on the ground are just as intense as in Beslan.

For over a hundred years, New Zealanders have not had to face such future-eating carnage and insanity at home. But it would be wrong to let any hint of smugness creep in.

This is not really such a wonderful place to bring up children. The first report on the current state of human rights in New Zealand, released by the Human Rights Commission this month, shows why.

Among 27 OECD countries, New Zealand has the fifth worst rate of child deaths by maltreatment. Between 1996 and 2002, 2,878 people aged between 0 and 19 were discharged from hospital with a diagnosis of assault.

The latest available figures show an increase in the total rate of youth suicide (15–24 years). There were 20.0 deaths per 100,000 population in 2001, up from 18.1 in 2000. New Zealand has the highest male youth suicide rate (15–24 years), and the second highest female youth suicide rate in the OECD.

Young men are four and a half times more likely than young women to kill themselves. But this is mainly because they use more “effective” suicide methods. Young women are twice as likely as young men to try to kill themselves.

These are shaming statistics. What exactly are we doing, or not doing, as a society to produce so much violence towards children and young people? The fact that almost a third of all children continue to live in poverty, in the midst of an apparent economic boom, must surely have something to do with it.

Growing up now is like winning an Olympic medal – the standard for success is much higher than it used to be. To find their footing in the adult world, kids have to be able to function at a much higher level in pretty much every area of life than their parents or grandparents did. Some do spectacularly well, but the gulf between them and the ones at the bottom gets wider every day.

Kids can be killed or maimed in many different ways, but the quiet ways it mostly happens here don’t make front page news. Maybe it’s time they did.

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- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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