The Child Madonna & The Unheard Truth

It’s that time of year: nativity costumes, little angels playing Joseph and Mary, and (of course) ’tis also the season of giving and receiving.  In my house my nearest and dearest invariably get books, and so I have some firm gift recommendations for Christmas reads with a human rights twist:

The Child Madonna by David Maidment:  I have started reading this book written by David Maidment, who is the children’s rights advisor to AI, a fellow blogger, the founder of the Railway Children, and co-chair for the Consortium for Street Children.  The novel looks at the revered life of the Virgin Mary from a child rights perspective. 

In the Middle and Near East where honour killing, rape, enforced marriage are still rife, Mary would have probably suffered abuse at the hands of the men in her society and treated as a criminal – a far cry from the reverence applied to the legend of the Madonna.  The book has received really good reviews and I look forward tucking up with it over the holiday.

I was inspired to send David’s book to the top of my reading list by Christian Aid’s O broken town of Bethlehem, an appeal which tells the story of Noor, a 17 year-old who lost his right hand at 13 after picking up an explosive device near his home in the West Bank.  It brought tears to my eyes to read that he subsequently dropped out of school and ‘lost all hope in life’. 

This is more than just a plea for money.  As much as money is helpful (and bought Noor a prosthetic hand and time with a counsellor), what Noor needed more was to learn that despite his troubles his life wasn’t over, that he did have a future worth fighting for.  I applaud Christian Aid for their child-rights focused Christmas appeal.

Empowering children to overcome adversity and realise their human rights is extraordinarily important: for a young person, self-confidence really is the gift that keeps on giving – to all of society. 

I remember being an angry, unhappy teenager myself – and I’m from a background of extraordinary privilege!  The minute I gained more confidence I became better equipped for compassionate action.  The change seems subtle – but self-affirmation really is a hugely important for children, especially those living in poverty and conflict.  Cultivating a sense of dignity is not self-help mumbo-jumbo, but the central tenet of children’s human rights – we must work for them because it is the youngest who have the longest futures.

I also ordered myself a copy of The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights by Irene Khan (OK, I ordered it as a gift for someone else and decided to keep it!).  It is a fascinating volume exploring the consistent denial of human rights to those that live in poverty, who have less access to information on their rights and no money to spend on legal representation.  It outlines the principles behind the Demand Dignity campaign.

This reminds me of the old saying – ‘The law is like the Ritz hotel, open to everybody’.  We have to remember that what affects adults affect children with much more force, and that only children with rich parents (or a trust fund) can afford to stay at the Ritz!

The inspiring introduction to the above volume details Khan’s childhood in Bangladesh, growing up in privilege alongside the son of her grandmother’s poor maid:

In the same year in my grandmother’s house, I was born, and there was a little boy born to my grandmother’s maid. And I have stayed in touch with him through this time. He went to school like me, but he was thrown out of school, dropped out, became a factory laborer, lost his job, became a rickshaw puller, now lives in a slum. And look at me. I was born in the same house. I went to school, got educated, went abroad. (Taken from an interview on

Here Khan highlights the very point that child rights campaigners emphasise again and again.  Children are the future (it’s corny but it’s true!) and we could save ourselves a lot of trouble when working on poverty and human rights by starting with them.  Education, for example, is absolutely essential for promoting meritocracy and economic justice, and education is a children’s rights issue.

So as we buy nativity costumes and watch those little angels on stage, we should remember that all around the world children are still being neglected, and (worse still) used and abused.  They suffer.  They are bullied.  And most importantly, they have no way of fighting for their own human rights.  Unless, of course, they can afford a room at the Ritz…

Now as I’m buying books for people and spending time with family and eating huge meals, I’m thinking about how unbelievably lucky I am.  And so I resolve to make sure I practise ‘active gratitude’: by sharing knowledge, exciting people about children’s rights, and being compassionate.

The thing is, it’s really easy to do the aforementioned things, and costs very little money:  Buy David’s book!  Buy Irene’s book!  (And keep reading the blog!) 

Season's Greetings!

Helle :)

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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