Rights of the Child
In the Puritan and Calvinist cultures prevalent in 17th century Britain and America, children were believed to be born corrupted by ‘original sin’. Quakers rejected this doctrine, and Robert Barclay called it ‘an invented and unscriptural barbarism’. Children were regarded as innocent from birth until they consciously committed a wrong act. Furthermore, as the Divine Light was within every person, children, too, had a direct relationship with God that required no intermediary.
This belief gave Quaker children a special role within Meetings for Worship. Before the Act of Toleration (1689), when many Quakers were being persecuted for their beliefs, all the adults from a given meeting could be imprisoned at the same time. Far from putting a stop to Quaker worship, their children would carry on, often gathering outside a locked and barred Meeting House. When soldiers broke up the meeting, the older boys would be taken away and beaten and the others sent home.
In Bristol, in 1682, eleven boys and four girls aged between ten and twelve were imprisoned overnight and threatened with a cat o’ninetails (a vicious whip with nine strands) unless they promised not to attend any more meetings, but the children steadfastly refused to comply. Here, as in Reading and Cambridge, children kept up the meetings until their parents were released.
Quakers have believed from the outset that education could nurture ‘that of God’ in everyone, and should therefore be available to all - girls as well as boys. To begin with, many Quaker children were home schooled. Nevertheless, as early as the 1670s, Quakers in England had established Waltham Abbey School for boys and Shacklewell School for girls. William Penn established the Charter School in Pennsylvania in 1689. Other schools followed, and now there are Quaker schools on every continent.
In an age when harsh punishments for children were the norm, Quaker parents rejected corporal punishment and used reason to appeal to their children. Today, the Quaker Peace Centre in South Africa conducts training for teachers on alternatives to corporal punishment in schools.
Concern for education went hand in hand with a rejection of the exploitation of children through child labour. John Cadbury (1801-1889) led the campaign against the use of children as chimney sweeps. A century later, in 1971, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) raised concerns about the use of child labour in agricultural areas of the US. Today, Quakers campaign for the elimination of what they see as the worst form of child labour – the recruitment of child soldiers. QUNO is a founder member of the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and has worked to raise public awareness on the issue since 1979. It has successfully lobbied the UN General Assembly to adopt an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the UK and the US, where governments continue to recruit into the armed forces from the age of sixteen, both QPSW and AFSC have campaigned for a change in the law.
Quaker relief work recognises that children are often the ones who suffer the most during wars. Quakers working in Germany during and after the First World War described children as desperately malnourished and suffering from conditions such as rickets. At its height in 1921, their feeding programme, known as Quäkerspeisung" (Quaker feeding), provided food for up to one million children a day.
In 1938, Quakers organised the Kindertransport, rescuing 10,000 children who might otherwise have died in concentration camps.
In the 1960s, AFSC provided help – including prosthetics for those injured in the war – to children in both North and South Vietnam.
Children are also the first to suffer when their mothers are imprisoned. Ever since Elizabeth Fry started a school in Newgate Prison for the children of women inmates, Quakers have been concerned with the welfare of children imprisoned with their mothers. QUNO has campaigned on the issue since 2005 and in 2011 has drafted a proposal to be considered by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Organisations such as the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network in the UK campaign against the detention of children in Immigration Centres, and also on issues of suspected trafficking of refugee children.