FERGUS FINLAY: Remember Ben at Christmas, but don’t forget him the rest of the year

I WORE a white ribbon on my coat last week. I was asked to do it by the Men’s Development Network, a small, mostly voluntary organisation dedicated to building confidence and self-esteem in men.

The wearing of a white ribbon is one of their annual campaigns and it is accompanied by a pledge: “I promise never to commit, excuse, or remain silent about men’s violence against women”. The purpose is to make men part of the solution, and to encourage all of us to be more open.

That matters, because most violence against women happens in secret, behind closed doors. Which is to say it happens at home.

The organisations that protect women from violence will all tell you that the largest single group of men who abuse women violently are the men who live with them.

I’m interested in the subject, because I’m a man. But also because children suffer immensely. According to the annual statistics released by Safe Ireland, in October, domestic-violence services answered five phone calls every single hour of every single day, last year, from women who lived in fear as a result of violence in their homes. In total, more than 8,000 women and 3,500 children received support from a variety of organisations. (And that’s not counting the women and children who had to be turned away for lack of resources.)

I know, from my day job, the damage violence can do. We work every day with children who have been traumatised by witnessing violence, or who have been battered themselves. It can take years for children to come to terms with the effects.

The children frequently can’t bring themselves to blame the man who hit them, or who hit their mother — all too often, they blame the victim. “My man didn’t protect me — my man caused it by annoying him.” The physical scars can heal quickly. The emotional scars can take forever.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that in our civilisation violence against children would be simply unacceptable. But I was also asked last week to launch a book that demonstrates all too clearly how hard it is for attitudes to change.

It’s a remarkable book, called The Government of Childhood — Discourse, Power and Subjectivity, by Karen Smith, who lectures in sociology in the Dublin Institute of Technology.

I can’t pretend it’s an easy read — perhaps the first book I was ever asked to launch that I didn’t fully understand! But it’s an immensely valuable work, because it traces the place of children in society over several centuries, and shows how slowly we have come to recognise that children have rights.

You don’t have to go back centuries, of course. One of the sayings of my childhood was that children should be seen and not heard. The justification for violence against children in school (corporal punishment, it was called) was that children were simply incapable of growing and developing without discipline and frequent punishment.

Smith demonstrates how that attitude to children was enshrined in law, and how slowly it has changed. We’re now, perhaps, at least prepared to pay lip service to the idea that children can, and will, reach their full potential if we stop getting in the way.

There is now, for instance, a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland has fully ratified.

That convention accords rights to children under 41 different headings. For example, it obliges us to listen to children. It guarantees them freedom of expression. It protects their privacy. It recognises the importance of family to children.

In other words, it recognises children as citizens. Little by little, our laws have changed to reflect that, and, indeed, we’ve changed our constitution to guarantee that children’s voices will be heard, in some situations anyway.

But children still live in disadvantage.

If we believe that every child has the right to a home, a good start in life, and adequate educational and healthcare services, then we don’t practice any of that. That’s why, this Christmas, there will be thousands of children in Ireland who run the risk of going hungry, of being afraid, perhaps even of missing out on the visit of Santa Claus.

In common with many other organisations in Ireland, we at Barnardos are launching our Christmas appeal this week. In it, we tell the story of Ben. It’s a true story, although, of course, we’ve changed his name, and we’re using a model in all of the photographs.

Ben is a bright, full-of-fun six-year-old. We started working with him and his mam during the summer. He believes, secretly, that he must have done something really bad, because Santa Claus didn’t come last year.

But Ben didn’t do anything bad. His mam works all the hours she can, in two part-time jobs that each pay the minimum wage. But by the time the bills are paid there’s nothing left.

Their accommodation is cold and damp, and there are times when she went without a meal to ensure that Ben wasn’t hungry.

There are families like that all over Ireland. They are victims of the violence of poverty and the entrenched attitudes of old-fashioned policy.

Right now, we’re trying to ensure that Santa Claus will have a full sleigh when he gets near Ben’s house, and all the other houses where he has to sigh deeply and pass on. We’re asking everyone who goes out to buy toys for their children to buy one extra and donate it, so we can ensure the sack is full.

All year round, we work to break the cycle of poverty by supporting and enabling children like Ben to grow and develop, to be the best adults they can be.

At this time of year, we’ll do everything we can to make certain that the house is warm and that there’s food on the table throughout Christmas.

We’ll get help from thousands of ordinary people throughout Ireland. I’m amazed, every year, by the donations from people who have little enough, but can’t bear the thought of any child having to do without.

But you know something? The government of childhood isn’t changing fast enough. In a week when (thankfully) some Christmas bonus is being paid to thousands of families for whom it will mean a make-or-break difference, public policy really needs to go much further.

When you know the story of children like Ben, when you see it with your own eyes, one of the things it’s telling you is that we have our priorities all wrong.

It may be an easy thing to say, as the Christmas season begins, but we can’t remember Ben now and then forget the conditions he lives in for the rest of the year. Ben has the right to grow — and that right should be at the core of public policy.

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