Invisible Children

Children with Minority Status


Children and young people can be categorized as minorities through a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, and religion.  Social factors enter into it as well.  Indigenous youth in many countries are outcasts simply because they were there first, before settlers moved in to claim their homelands.  Linguistic differences can marginalize those who speak minority languages, and sexual orientation can be a significant factor in determining who children are and where they belong.  In all forms, children of minority status, however defined, face clear threats to their safety and development.

In various societies, young people are marginalized by their ethnicities.  Indigenous children are vulnerable in societies where traditions of colonization or ethnic prejudice have repressed both their rights and expression.  Both these groups contend with physical isolation that can limit access to education, health care, nutrition and life training.  

No region has a monopoly on these prejudices.  Longstanding suspicion of the Roma in Eastern Europe has had an ongoing impact on Roma children, many of whom are invisible, lacking identification documents, access to education, and adequate health care.   Thousands have crossed the German border from Romania or Bulgaria to escape deep-seated prejudice in their homelands, and are living in camps with marginal services.  As they become adults without documentation, they will not be able to vote, access social services or register their own children, thus perpetuating this cycle.[i]   

According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) in the United States, of whom 2.1 million are under the age of 24.  The poverty rate for this group was 28%, and 32.4% for those under the age of 18.[ii]  The lives of this minority group can be measured by negative indices that surpass national norms.  Alcoholism mortality rates are 514% higher than the general population, and type II diabetes runs 177% higher.  While U.S. child mortality for children between one and 14 decreased by 9% since 2000, that rate increased by 15% for AI/AN children.  And, perhaps most striking, suicide is the second leading cause for death for AI/AN young people between 15 and 24, more than 2.5 times the national rate.[iii]

Ethnic discrimination impacts the development of children in various parts of the world, from ostracism of the Uighurs in China,[iv] to the persecution of the Aborigines in Australia, where huge gaps in education and health care impact aboriginal children, curtailing their potential for full societal participation.[v]   The Karenni remain persecuted in Myanmar, and indigenous tribes in Guatemala are ignored, receiving little in the way of government services, including schools that speak their languages.  In many places it is a risk for a child to be born into the “wrong” ethnic group.

Religious discrimination is just as insidious.  The 300,000 adherents of the Baha’i faith in Iran are systematically excluded from pursuing higher education.[vi]   The rift between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East frequently erupts in violence, and children are caught in the crossfire.  In Pakistan, a 14 year old Christian girl charged with blasphemy for allegedly destroying a Koran faced the death penalty until those charges were shown to be false.[vii]  And the 300 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram were the targets of a campaign to make part of the country religiously pure.[viii]

Official government policy in Myanmar has subjected Rohingya Muslims to a bitter and harsh form of apartheid.  Among its imposed restrictions, the government has cut off medical assistance to the Rohingya, leaving many to die unattended and unable to access even the simplest elements of care.  The official condemnations of the Rohingya have escalated tensions in the country between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim population.  And in the process, babies are dying because they cannot see doctors, children cannot go to formal schools, and young people scavenge for existence because they are excluded from decent jobs.[ix] 

Violence against Muslims has erupted in Western Europe and the United States.  U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in late 2012: "without question we are seeing real challenges to the civil rights of Muslim Americans, including arsons of mosques, assaults, and other hate crimes.”[x]  In the U.K., 19 year old Sameera Hussain, a student who wears a head scarf, is regularly threatened when she travels outside her community, hearing threats such as, “We’ll take your scarf and wrap it around your neck.”[xi]  And in France, a major political movement is based on new immigration laws that would exclude all Muslims.[xii]

Sexual orientation can sadly lead to exclusion, stigmatization, and, at its worst, violence.  In the United States, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children are coming out at younger ages:  64% of LGBT young people were out in high school and 54% in middle school.  But even though U.S. society has made significant strides in accepting LGBT youth, they are still extremely vulnerable, especially during adolescence.   LGBT teens have higher rates of suicide, depression, HIV infection and drug and alcohol abuse than do straight teens.  They are subjected to higher levels of frequent verbal harassment[xiii]  and are twice as likely as peers to have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved at school.[xiv]  As many as 25% of LGBT teens are rejected by their families, and, with few options, many end up homeless.    Homeless LGBT teens are more likely than other homeless teens to be subjected to violence on the streets, and in the homeless shelter system.[xv]

Discrimination against LGBT young people exists globally.   LGBT persons face criminal punishment in 76 countries, and are subject to capital punishment in five, including Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.  New legislation in Uganda, signed into law in February 2014, mandates life imprisonment for anyone caught in same-sex relations.[xvi]    Despite the fact that South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriages and its constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, discrimination and acts of violence against LGBT young people are common and most likely underreported because of fear and stigma.[xvii]

Whenever children are viewed as types rather than as individuals, and whenever they are subjected to oppression by a resentful majority, their current safety is impaired and their future development is compromised.   By hindering the development of a positive self-image during childhood and adolescence, and by subjecting them to persecution, harassment and scorn, discrimination is an insidious deterrent to health and well being.  It matters little whether that discrimination is based on ethnicity, race, religion, language or orientation.  The very nature of it in all its forms does great damage.


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[i] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6422283.stm
[ii] http://cnay.org/ForEveryone.html ; cf. http://www.census.gov/2010census/data/
[iii] http://cnay.org/ForEveryone.html ; cf. http://www.census.gov/2010census/data/
[iv] Dan Levin, “China Remodels an Ancient Silk Road City, and an Ethnic Rift Widens,” New York Times, March 5, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/06/world/asia/china-remodels-an-ancient-silk-road-city-and-a-ethnic-rift-widens.html?_r=0
[v] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/6099785/UN-criticises-Australias-treatment-of-Aborigines-as-racist.html
[vi]  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/19/opinion/press-iran-on-religious-freedom.html
[vii] Salman Masood, “Girl’s Blasphemy Case in Pakistan Sent to Juvenile Court,” New York Times, September 24, 2012;  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/world/asia/girls-blasphemy-case-in-pakistan-sent-to-juvenile-court.html
[viii] Salman Masood, “Girl’s Blasphemy Case in Pakistan Sent to Juvenile Court,” New York Times, September 24, 2012;  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/world/asia/girls-blasphemy-case-in-pakistan-sent-to-juvenile-court.html
[ix] Nicholas Kristof, “There’s a Kind of Hush,” New York Times, June 4, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/opinion/kristof-theres-a-kind-of-hush.html?_r=1
[x] "Assistant Attorney General Perez Speaks at the Grand Opening of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro," Department of Justice, 2012-NOV-18, at: http://www.justice.gov/; cf http://www.religioustolerance.org/islhate2011.htm
[xi] Andrew Testa, New York Times, February 13, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/world/europe/as-hate-crimes-rise-british-muslims-say-theyre-becoming-more-insular.html 
[xii] Elaine Ganley, “French Anti-immigrant Far-right Worries Critics After Soaring in Presidential Vote,” the Associated Press, April 22, 2012; cf. http://news.yahoo.com/french-anti-immigrant-far-worries-critics-soaring-presidential-000045113.html
[xiii]John Schwartz, “Helping a Child to Come Out,” New York Times, October 5, 2012;  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/fashion/helping-a-gay-child-to-come-out.html?pagewanted=all
[xiv] Human Rights Campaign, http://www.hrc.org/youth
[xv] http://www.aliforneycenter.org/index.cfm?
[xvi] “Uganda’s President Signs Anti-gay Bill Into Law,” CNN News, February 24, 2014.
[xvii] Amnesty International, “Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of same-Sex Conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa”, 2013; http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR01/001/2013/en/9f2d91b7-bc0e-4ea7-adae-7e51ae0ce36f/afr010012013en.pdf

Demographics of Invisibility

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children