The Adventures Of Oliver Twist: Human Rights Violation, Protection And Discussion
“The Sun, – the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man” – Chalres Dickens, Oliver Twist. Literature has the strength and power to change minds, to influence society and to make us question ourselves. A good book allows for the reader to engage with the story, to become friends with its characters, to laugh, cry and scream. A good book makes, in conclusion: feel. However, it is also an asset to criticize society, to acknowledge existing problems and to make a change in the world. A book is an open window to a whole world of opportunities.
Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist, farpasses all the abovementioned points. He creates a little child that has to face, throughout his life, hard decisions and challenges. He is an orphan able to stay true to himself and his convictions regardless of what life throws his way. Corruption starts for him at an early age, he lives with a “gang of thieves” for a while, they try to make him steal, they try to make him feel unworthy but, Oliver always knows what is right and wrong and he never let’s people convince him otherwise. He has a difficult childhood, at least the beginning of it, but with the help of some friends and people he meets along the way, he is able to surpass such conditions and gain a better and happy life. Dickens, in his novel, criticizes the Victorian England by emphasizing the difficulty of poor children in the workhouses and factories; he highlights the inadequate living conditions including lack of proper housing, sanitation, education and healthcare. Moreover, he also acknowledges the different treatment in regards to social class and the disparities between men and women. He shows a corrupt society, moved by selfishness and greediness with few genuinely good and caring people.
Clearly, what might have been acceptable in Victorian England was not acceptable to Dickens, who expresses his disapproval of much that he described. Throughout the book, Dickens gives observations on childcare and parenting, both by society and by natural and substitute parents. He observes and describes many categories of child abuse, together with risk factors that today would be identified as abusing parents. Little did Dickens know at the time, that the crimes and situations he was emphasising would later on, in 1948 become part of the Declaration of Human Rights and some years later in 1989 part of the Chart of Children Rights. Those Declarations containing human rights, provide a foundation for a just and decent future for all, and has given people everywhere a powerful tool in the fight against oppression, impunity and affronts to human dignity. The international community has as duty to uphold and defend these rights. Those commitments discredit tyranny, discrimination and abuses. The Universal Declaration promises to all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights that underpin a life free from want and fear. They are the inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places.
Child labour at the Victorian times meant slavery, which at the same time implied, cheap labour for the employer. In those places one could find inhuman torture, exploitation and even death. For the society, poverty was the root cause of being ill-treated in such a way, and they were believed to be not only less but also deserving of such ways. During the Victorian Era, the economy and workforce relied heavily on children. Their energy, vulnerability, and inability to revolt against injustices made them easy targets for profit seeking, merciless bosses. The New Poor Law established the workhouse system, it was a harsh system that meant no refuge for: the elderly, the sick and the poor, where they were given no food and no clothing. The workhouse could be equalled to a prison system. What the state was trying to do was slash expenditure on poverty by setting up a cruelty deterrent regime. Where no cash support was given out and no gifts in kind, such as food, shoes or blankets either. It was a harsh and austere system. The poor were treated punitively, as if their predicament was entirely of their own making, and they were deserving of punishment. One of the most striking scenes of the book is when little Oliver, who does not even reach the age of ten and still lives in the workhouse, asks: “Please I want more” referring to the gruel he had just eaten. Afterwards, Oliver is maligned, threatened with being hanged, drawn and quartered: he is starved, caned, and flogged, solitarily confined in the dark for days, kicked and cursed. Children were, at those places, neglected, barely fed and barely clothed.
Another example of how children were mistreated is when one of Oliver’s friends from the workhouse called Dick says: “‘I hope so,’ replied the child. ‘After I am dead, but not before. I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake.” Both scenes perfectly showcase the horrors and atrocities the system put children and the poor in. They were children that had seen and went through things that no person, child or adult should go through. We are talking about cruel treatment and punishment and by no means were those children given the highest standard of health and medical care attainable. Additionally, States shall place special emphasis on the reduction of infant and child mortality and on the provision of primary and preventive healthcare (art. 24), things that undoubtedly did not take place at that era.
Societies, change and evolve and with them so do priorities and preoccupations. One of the first things our current society does is defend children. According to the Children’s Rights, children have the right to an adequate standard of living, health care, education and services, and to play and recreation. These include a balanced diet, a warm bed to sleep in, and access to schooling. Things Oliver and Dick lacked and were not provided by those taking care of him by the hands of the State. However, Oliver experiences even worse situations when he ends up getting in with the wrong crowd – a gang of thieves – and doing some things, which he knows that he shouldn’t. The scenarios following that encounter clearly show the child’s life in danger and according to what we today have as children rights, under the category of Protection, that children have the right to protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and discrimination. Containing the right to safe places for children to play; constructive child rearing behaviour, and acknowledgement of the evolving capacities of children.
Oliver is not provided with none of those opportunities, he is forced to steal, and he is threatened and beaten. He sees a spark of hope when Mr.Brunlow deciding to educate him and care for him saves him from going to prison for a crime he did not commit. Mr.Brunlow shows us how a helping hand and empathy can go a long way. Gratitude is something Oliver is surprisingly good at, he knows what the help he is given is worth and he takes it and accepts it with open hands by being not only grateful but also, respectful and polite. He makes sure to always follow the rules and do as much as he can to help and show appreciation. This comes to show how much appearances are misleading, we find ourselves with children wrongly accused of stealing that is used to being hard treated who on the other hand shows nothing but kindness, honesty and reverence.
Moreover, substance abuse, in the form of alcohol abuse, features throughout the novel, suggesting the problem was widespread. Such abuse is encouraged by adults, and children drink beer, gin or rum just like they would water. In current times, legal drinking age is either eighteen or twenty-one depending on the country you find yourself in. So, not only would it be unwise to give children an alcoholic drink but also it would be illegal. In addition, early drinking has health implications as well; it creates a higher risk of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Alcohol drinking during child growth can also cause a change in the body’s hormones. That can affect growth and puberty. According to a publication by the newspaper ElPaís: “Half of the young age children that start drinking before the age of 14 develop dependency”. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has the highest level of signatories of all international human right treaties. It specifically addresses the need for the State to protect children from elements harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development (Art. 32).
Another topic worth addressing is the fact that the women, in the book, appear entirely at the men’s mercy. Each time they desire to accomplish the least important act, they must ask for permission to a figure of authority. Rose, for instance, must turn towards M. Brownlow and M. Losberne even when she contemplates acts that meet an evidence in her, in the occurrence that has to do with saving Oliver. Nancy’s character is another example of this harsh tutelage. As a prostitute, she finds herself in a situation of dependency. She depends of the men for her protection and for gaining her bread. In her case, the dependency reaches the extreme, as well as its consequences: the fact of having disobeying and acting in favour of Oliver – even if indirectly – costs her with her life. Throughout her life, Nancy seems to have been driven to perversion despite herself. Orphan, she grows up in the street and becomes dependent of Sikes and Fagin. The novel shows that it is the encounter of certain men what has led her to become what she is.
Human Dignity is the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake, and to be treated ethically. In addition, article 1 of the UDHR states that we are all equal therefore men and women are too. Nowadays, we find that in theory equality is guaranteed however some disparities still exist between men and women. We no longer find differences or discrimination in the form of expression, opinion, thought or need of men in order to engage in activities or decision-making but we find unequal payments, or predispositions towards males when hiring in companies. Freedom from sexual exploitation should not only be an obligation but protected at all costs. Had Nancy been given some help when growing up, her outcome would have been extremely different. As a society, in an ever globalized world, where population pressures and mass inequality creates major movements of peoples across borders, the opportunities for human exploitation are increasing. It has been created an environment where women and girls are increasingly vulnerable to the industry of human trafficking and forced prostitution. Regretfully, some societies still see women and girls like an economic burden, resulting therefore in them being sold into sexual slavery. Forced prostitution can be assimilated to a modern day form of slavery. This leads up to women being subjected to human rights abuses, degradation and physical abuse, leading to a diminished social development and health problems.
Data shows us that sexual exploitation is one of the five most common types of human trafficking, with 98% of victims being women. UNICEF estimates that traffickers force almost two million children into prostitution each year. Children are the future of our society, they deserve to be protected by all means and they need to be taken care accordingly. They are a minority that cannot protect itself therefore; we need to stand up for them. However, according to statistics, even though there are written laws concerning children’s rights, children across the world continue to be exploited. An estimated 153 million children worldwide are orphans (UNICEF). There are 168 million child labourers, accounting for almost 11% of Children (ILO). In the world’s poorest countries around 1 in 4 children are engaged in child labour (UNICEF). 263 million children and youth are out of school (UNESCO). An estimated 61 million primary-school-age children are out of school: 53% of them girls (UNICEF). There are 69 million children worldwide who suffer from malnutrition. In 2017, 75% of malnourished children lived in less developed regions. Nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of five can be attributed to undernutrition, resulting in the unnecessary death of about 3 million young lives a year (UNINCEF). 66 million primary-school-age children attend classes hungry across the developing world, with 23 million in Africa alone.
In 2017, 150.000 children under the age of five died every day, that equals 1 child every 17 seconds. Children represent roughly one third of the world’s population but accounts for almost one half of all people living in extreme poverty. A number of Oliver Twist still lingers along the streets, he might be the one eating leftovers outside the restaurant, getting a good night sleep across the cold road, doing heavy works to earn a small amount of money or the one you gave alms before but was not satisfied saying, “Please sir, I want some more”. We need to understand the world is far bigger than what we can see with our eyes, than what we have in our surroundings. We have had the luck to grow up and be born in developed countries and in privileged positions. We have the power and the opportunity to change the future, to make it better. Why not take it?
It is not necessary to travel to Africa or visit Asian factories to help. In Spain, we can find children or young people in the streets without food or clothes, starving. A sandwich is only worth 1,50€ to you, a water bottle 0,80€, to them it can be the difference between starving and having a meal. It is an impact and a help that will go a long way. Let’s keep in mind that one person can make a difference. We have been told throughout our lives: “What you do not want for yourself, do not want it for somebody else”; “Today for you, tomorrow for me”. The reality is that, when we talk about making impacts we all think about it in global terms, let’s start locally and then move up. Working together, we can make a lasting change. We already have the legal rules to provide the help, we have the organizations and we have the capacity, let’s use it.
- Dickens, C., & Dickens, C. (1993). The adventures of Oliver Twist. Barcelona: Planeta.
- Child rights. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org.nz/child-rights
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
- Henry Brooke. (2015, December 31). Charles Dickens and the Law: (3) Oliver Twist and the New Poor Law. Retrieved from https://sirhenrybrooke.me/2015/12/30/charles-dickens-and-the-law-3-oliver-twist-and-the-new-poor-law/
- Unknown. (1970, January 01). FILM REVIEW: (HUMAN RIGHTS BEHIND) OLIVER TWIST. Retrieved from http://miamightconfess.blogspot.com/2014/01/film-review-human-rights-behind-oliver.html
- Dignity. (2019, May 01). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dignity
- Social Status in Oliver Twist. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://victorianera-olivertwist.weebly.com/social-status-in-oliver-twist.html#
- Sukumar, M. (1970, January 01). Child Rights and Oliver Twist. Retrieved from http://moorthisukumarpgtrbenglishliterature.blogspot.com/2016/04/child-rights-and-oliver-twist.html
- Butler, K. (2007, February 19). Reportaje | El alcohol daña el cerebro adolescente. Retrieved from https://elpais.com/diario/2007/02/20/salud/1171926001_850215.html
- Tulloch, F., & Tulloch, F. (2018, December 02). Forced Prostitution as Modern Slavery. Retrieved from https://medium.com/nonviolenceny/forced-prostitution-as-modern-slavery-dc1c1c5f662c
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