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Justice for the world's children

CHRISTMAS is for children - but what about the rest of the year? While the excitement and tinsel of the holiday inspire the joy, others don't share in the bounty.

There is little joy or justice for the Lisa Steinbergs who are terrorized and abused - in her case, allegedly murdered - by a disturbed parent. Hungry, homeless, enslaved children see little of the peace symbolized by the season.

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The situation is grim, and the prospects seem dim for many youngsters around the world.

A United Nations report, for instance, predicts that there could be tens of millions of homeless children in the world by the year 2000.

Another study, prepared for Norway's Justice Department, estimates that every year more than a million children worldwide are coerced into prostitution, pornography, or other sexual exploitation.

The London-based Friends World Committee for Consultation, a Quaker group, reported earlier this year that 200,000 children have been conscripted into the world's armies. The committee told a UN rights group that the youths are trained in pillaging, spying, and terrorism and are often subjected to physical brutality.

This survey offered as examples illegal street roundups in Afghanistan to recruit youths under age 15; abduction of boys under the legal draft age of 18 by Army recruiters in El Salvador; forced participation of minors in the Guatemalan Army's civil defense patrols; and use of boys as young as 12 by Nicaragua's contras and forced recruitment of at least 3,000 youngsters by government forces.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Child. The UN is in the process of drafting a global convention protecting the human rights of children.

Although children have formally been subject to international law for more than 60 years, for the first time there is specific talk about children's rights. Included in the draft convention - subject to ratification in 1989 - are planks that establish the right of children to enjoy family life and extend international legal protection to adoptions.

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The convention also grants to children the privileges of free association and would generally prohibit governments under its auspices from drafting those under 15 into their armed forces.

In the United States, there has been a slow but steady expansion of children's protections, ranging from the right to legal representation, to guarantees against unconstitutional searches and seizures. Debate continues over the role of the state in preempting parental control over children in areas of delinquency and health.

Much lip service is paid to care of youth, but gains are slow in placing youngsters in limbo in permanent homes, expanding child care for those who need it, and providing enriched education and social services for those who need it.

It is often said that children are a nation's most important resource. Indeed, they are. And they need special care, nurturing - and respect.

The festivities of Christmas celebrate the birth of a precious child. And the life of Jesus exemplifies the idea that every child is precious.

Non-Christians should have no problem embracing this aspect of the season.

A Thursday column

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