Britain’s Obsession with the Vulnerability of Children

Abigail Watson


A child in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Julien Harnels

Many scholars have noted a rising obsession with the vulnerability of children in the Western world. For example, Drake Baer claimed parents are now “helicopters” who rush round ferrying their children from place to place. There is a new belief in today’s society that parents cannot allow their children to go places alone. Similarly, a group of experts on “child safety” discussed its impact on today’s society in this piece. They, like Baer, asked whether the obsession with the vulnerability of children has gone too far and is having a negative impact on society. For example, they ask whether taking children’s autonomy away restricts their development.

There is another negative impact to this phenomenon; by focusing on the vulnerability of children we tend to ignore other vulnerable groups in developing countries. Children are given a mammoth share of international aid – at the expense of other vulnerable groups such as the disabled and the old. While the international community are realising the unequal distribution of aid – for example The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing – the trend continues. Moreover, it seems set to continue because our domestic need to cover children in cotton wool is having a big impact on who gets donations internationally.

To assess the link between domestic obsession with children’s vulnerability and how children are perceived in the developing world, I looked at the annual reports of the 20 biggest international development charities in Britain (according to the guardian and the Charity Commission) as well as two annual reports by the Department for International Development (DFID). I did a discourse analysis of each; looking qualitatively at the way children were described and then quantitatively looking at the number of times certain words were mentioned.

First, looking at the amount of times certain groups were mentioned, I found that all these reports – except Age UK – focused on children more than any other group. In fact in every report, except Age UK, children were never mentioned less than 9 times – while the most older or elderly people were mentioned was twice. Leonard Cheshire and Sightsavers focus on disability and blindness, respectively, which are problems more likely to affect older people more than the young. Yet both mentioned children more times than older people. Leonard Cheshire mentioned children 22 times in its 2013/14 annual report but mentioned older people only once – speaking about problems with older people in the UK. While Sightsaver’s Strategic Framework for 2012-2018 mentioned children 19 times and did not mention old people at all.

Second, looking at the way children are described it is obvious they are perceived as vulnerable. For example DFID annual report referred to children as vulnerable more than any other group in its 2011/12 annual report. In fact, this was true of almost all the reports, for example ActionAid’s 2013 Annual Report claimed “women and children suffer most in emergencies, and need the most support.” While, International Planned Parenthood, in its 2013/14 annual report, outlined those it classed as marginalised groups; among sex workers and drug takers was “young people”.  Marie Stopes International, in its 2014 annual report, also named young people as the most vulnerable, along with the extreme poor and those who had no experience in family planning. This implies young people are vulnerable just for being young.

Finally, there was an implication throughout the reports that – more than anyone – children must be protected from harm. This was more implicit in some; for example, in most of the reports the successes were described in terms of how many children had been helped. The Red Cross 2013 annual report said “A new Red Cross programme in Myanmar is improving health services for mothers and children in 75 remote communities”. Similarly, CAFOD’s 2013-2014 annual report noted that in “Zimbabwe children no longer had to walk 7 miles to school”. DFID’s annual reports for 2011/12 and 2012/3 also listed the things it had done for children, both in its general section and in each country overview. Of course, these successes are brilliant, however it is interesting that all the reports highlight what they have done for children rather than other vulnerable groups – such as the old and disabled. This seems to imply that children need helping more, thus activities which help them are more worthy. Even Age UK, talks about the importance of helping old people so they can help children. Every photograph of the developing world in Age UK’s 2011/2012 annual report showed an old person helping children. The report also made special mention of its “sponsor a grandparent” scheme which gives the impression that old people should be helped so that they can help their, needier, grandchildren.

The importance of protecting children is, probably unsurprisingly, far more explicit in Save the Children’s 2013 annual report. It claims “Wherever children are at risk, it is our mission to shield them from harm”. This report plays on the vulnerability of children in a very explicit way, for example this description of a child in the Central African Republic:

“She was traumatised and frightened. Her village had been attacked. She fled her home and had been shot in the arm. She was so badly injured that, at the Save the Children supported hospital, the doctor had to amputate her arm. Céline is just six years old.”

Her age is left until right at the end because for many readers – especially those faced with the domestic child safety measures – this is the most shocking part of the story.

This brief overview of my findings shows the biggest charities in Britain concentrate on the vulnerability of children to the expense of other groups. Britain’s obsession with the vulnerability of children will continue to impact how we view children beyond our borders. While it is right that we should continue to give much international aid to children, it is important to make sure our domestic desire to protect children does not stop us from giving aid to other vulnerable groups abroad.


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