Building Childhoods, Building Peace

by Jacqueline Bhabha
Schoolgirls_in_Bamozai-ccJune 15, 2015. What is the connection between early childhood and peace? Can attention to early childhood development be a pathway to peacemaking and peacebuilding?  This was the ambitious topic of an international conference in Istanbul on June 10, organized by ACEV, an innovative, well-known Turkish mother and child development program, UNICEF, and Yale University.

Speakers explored a very broad range of topics related to this expansive theme. These included the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment, the surprisingly enduring psychological impact of parenting support on children’s future development and wellbeing, and global initiatives to build a “culture of peace” that bridges recalcitrant enmities and divides. Speakers represented multiple disciplines, ranging from pediatrics, to neurobiology, to conflict resolution, to UN leadership.

Many presenters focused on the psychological factors relating to proximal family impact, and the importance of family mentorship, support, and consistent engagement. As one of the invited speakers, I took the opportunity to talk about ongoing research at Harvard FXB related to the conference theme.

Starting from the claim that “peace” is much more than the absence of war, and should be taken to include a sense of personal freedom and security, I touched on two of our central areas of research and their relevance to peace building. The first concerned the very severe circumstances with which child migrants contend: early exposure to violence; family separation and deprivation; endurance of hazardous journeys in which their rights are violated; and arrival in places where insecurity, discrimination, and vulnerability continue to undermine their wellbeing and access to protection.

I criticized current punitive and piecemeal policy towards child migrants and noted the importance of a more holistic, preventative approach based on investment in countries of origin – in political stability and socio-economic opportunity.

I also analyzed the failure to appropriately serve unaccompanied and separated child migrants in the destination state, including the absence of free, competent legal representation and consistent guardianship.

My second set of brief comments focused on Harvard FXB’s work on the Champions project, which focuses on young women in low-caste communities in India who are in their second year of college despite having illiterate parents.  After detailing the pervasive impact of gender discrimination and patriarchal norms on the familial and social environments in which these young women grow up, I then went on to describe the importance of mentorship in breaking the stranglehold of gender discrimination to allow educational success.

Again, a holistic and preventative approach targeting stigma and discrimination at its source is the most effective way of building real opportunity and the capacity to contribute to a peaceful society for young women in marginalized and disadvantaged settings.

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