Prof. Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek
Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Childhood Studies Research Team, University of Warsaw
The category of voice is often a theme in childhood studies, and the right to express oneself under Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child seems to be the most frequently cited legal regulation in childhood studies scholarship. We understand the importance of listening to children’s voices in the social sphere. We want to hear it and we believe we can represent it due to our expertise. As childhood scholars, there can be a distance between our representation of children’s voices, and their concerns due to the colonizing dimension of ‘giving voice’ to the subaltern. However, at a time when some children’s voices continue to be silenced, unheard or unheeded, sometimes a voice emerges that is so strong they immediately force us to reconsider our ideas of social justice. ……
Tiba is 14 years old and comes from Iraq. She entered Poland through Belarus with her family and has been deeply affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis on this border. In her country of origin, she endured traumatic experiences, then, on arrival in Europe, her family suffered hunger, fear and a threat of violence at the hands of authorities on both sides. When her family managed to enter Poland, after long wandering in the cross-border forests patrolled by Polish guards ready to illegally deport migrants to Belarus, they were locked up in a detention centre. A detention centre is, quite simply, a prison for these families, including children. According to the Polish Ombudsman, conditions in these facilities may fall under the definition of inhuman and degrading treatment. Aid organisations have drawn attention to the scale of the problem, as several hundreds of children are being detained in such prisons in Poland.
Tiba was silenced in many ways: as a non-European migrant, as a girl, and as a child. And yet she found a way to speak out. Unable to bear her captivity, she went on hunger strike. She was admitted to a child psychiatric ward and spent several weeks there. There, the doctors concluded that her return to the detention centre would endanger her health.
A child should not have to take such drastic steps as a hunger strike. And yet, this act of silent resistance was the only way to give voice to her experience.
Eventually, Tiba wrote a letter to the Polish people which was reprinted in the media. Her letter gave voice to the experiences of a child who is deprived of dreams and a future. Tiba wrote: “I dreamed that my name would echo and that my actions would have an impact on the world. I would serve society and society would serve me. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to become a dentist, learn to play the piano and draw. I also always dreamed of getting braces, because in Iraq they are unimaginably expensive. To be a child in Iraq and have a dream – it’s impossible”.
It was this 14-year-old, silenced and deprived of influence, who changed the trajectory of her family’s life and ensured their release from the detention centre. Thanks to the publicity of the letter and the girl’s situation, Tiba’s voice became a political voice. One that was not only heard, but also changed reality, if only on a small scale. This change was achieved precisely because it is the voice of a child – and we are not accustomed to listening to children – so it takes on a particular gravity. The message is clear, it is Europeans who have created the conditions so hostile to the rights of childhood, the right to safety and protection, to a good education, to be heard by accepting the fact that children can be kept imprisoned. Tiba’s courageous action to give voice to experience reminds us to listen to those children who our decisions affect, because children, like no one else, have the right to speak out about the future, a future they will surely shape. Let’s listen to them, learn from them, and take them seriously as independent political actors so they have the best chance to do so. Let’s remember that that they already exercise their right to speak and change the world – often more bravely than adults do.