Salt and the human rights of children

My latest post about the need for some institutional actors to apologize to children before celebrating the UNCRC’s 25th anniversary this year produced some unexpected reactions. Some of my friends and readers got back saying that in some cases parents or entire traditional communities should apologize too.

I was made aware that in some countries traditional practices are terribly harmful to children, when they are most vulnerable: in their first months after birth. And indeed I was horrified to hear about some of them and thought that if these practices were applied to adults on such a large scale as they are applied to children then we would probably use words such as ‘torture’, ‘human rights violation’, or even ‘crimes against humanity’. But children cannot speak for themselves and this is why these words are never used and their plight is considered just normal.

Just imagine that for your next birthday a group of people that includes your own parents would take all your clothes off, cover you in salt and then wrap you in a tight, rough bed sheet, your arms aligned to your body. You will stay in this position soaking in salt and barely able to move a bit for the next three days. Not minutes and hours – three full days. As it happens you had an open wound on your body and your parents decide to be very generous with the salt on that part of your body. If you are lucky, at the last minute somebody suggests alcohol instead of salt for your open wound and you are very grateful to that noble heart as alcohol will at least evaporate somehow after a while. All this happens to you in a hot climate. Sure enough in a few minutes you start to sweat and this sweat starts to melt the salt on your body, until this salted liquid starts eating away your external layer of skin, corroding painfully into your pores, making each second feel ages. You start itching like hell but you cannot scratch yourself because you are so firmly tighten into those bed sheets. When you think that this is the worst thing that ever happened to you somebody comes – maybe your mother or an aunt – and puts a few drops of henna in each of your eyes.

People around you do this in good faith: they think the salt will be good for you and it will protect you from bacteria and viruses and they are convinced that the henna eye drops will improve your sight and make the color of your eyes more vivid and fascinating. And you come to believe it too: all those celebrating their birthday on the same day as you do, receive the same treatment and remain wrapped in salt for three days in a row. You are an adult after all and your skin has already seen a lot. But imagine this happened to you on the very first day of your life and that the open wound is your freshly cut umbilical cord.

Some newborns simply do not survive to this treatment and die. But for those who survive this is not all. After a few more days or weeks their mother or grandmother decides to give them a vigorous massage so as to strengthen their bodies and spirits. These adult women are keen on raising robust children who become robust adults that put up with all the craziness of life that each of us will have a fair share of. It is just that this massage is sometimes so tough that a few bones in your body will probably get broken. And because this happens so often to small children the family decides not to take you to the hospital unless you cry your eyes out and drive everybody nuts with your screams. (This, by the way, is considered very good exercise for your lungs). The clinic is expensive and far away and it is simply your fault if you are so fragile to get cracked bones after a massage that is meant to be good for your health. Everybody around you is doing everything they can to give you a good start in life, and it is such a pity you cannot hold and start appreciating it.

Many kids from your community do not have any major problem with these treatments and even survive the first 40 days of their lives. These first 40 days of your life are so critical. These are the only days when you will receive your mother’s milk. People in your community believe that human milk is too weak and not good enough for your. Besides, your mother has a duty to your father to stay beautiful as long as possible and it is known that breast-feeding women will lose the tonus of their breasts and when that happens your father is entitled to take a mistress or a second wife. And in any case, goat, sheep or cow milk is good enough for you, not to mention cheese, eggs, meat and other foods that all your older siblings were raised on. You start to have year-round diarrhea, but all children do, so why worry about it. When the physician asked your mother if you ‘suffer’ from diarrhea, your mother was very surprised at the doctor’s language and explain that diarrhea is not something that children ‘suffer’ from: it is just a thing that happens to children, a normal part of their life, that thing which allows for children to grow.

These modern approaches, those doctors who think that diarrhea, or salt, or henna, or tough massage is bad for children! They will spoil the new generations! They are the true danger to fight against!


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