THE headlines moan, 'Evil beyond belief - children out of control'. From the 10-year-old killers of James Bulger to under-age joy-riders, drinkers and drug- takers, few will deny that the young of today are presenting a challenge that our parents hardly dreamt of, let alone had to face. And we are failing to face it. The response of the adult world has been an orgy of buck-passing, with a venomous strain of scapegoating thrown in.
But what would the offending young have to say in their defence if, as the poet Blake once demanded, 'the voice of the children were heard in the land'?
Would they not rightly insist that crimes against children are far more common than crimes by them? That child arsonists or teenage thugs may be victims as well as villains? John Major has gained much political mileage out of the the Citizen's Charter. In the real world, there is a much greater need to acknowledge that children have rights, which are everywhere abused.
What might a Charter for the Child be like?
The right to be wanted
Every birth should be the result of a free choice by two parents. In an overpopulated world, the Roman Catholic ban on contraception and abortion can no longer be tolerated. And instead of pressing a young couple to 'start a family' as soon as they have walked down the aisle, why don't we say: 'Can you afford a child? Emotionally, financially, are you willing to pay?'
The right to a father
We have to reverse the idea that a woman on her own can do the work of a couple; as long as women earn two- thirds of a man's salary, single parenthood must involve deprivation.
And we must pin down all today's disappearing dads - if not to make them pay, at least to make them count.
The right to parents who will stay together
Divorce is more and more revealing itself as a form of child abuse. Except in cases of violence or cruelty, couples must accept that children's welfare and right to a stable home far outweigh their own right to happiness or fulfilment, to romance and sexual adventure, or the dream of vanished youth.
The right to a family life
We should vote out any government that cannot abandon the hollow rhetoric of 'family values' in favour of active financial support for families, including parental leave, broad-based tax provisions and full, free nursery and childcare. Industry, commerce and the professional world must abandon its macho faith in the the 40- to 60-hour week, and accept that workers have families, and families need family lives.
The right to safety at home
Many parents permit teasing, bullying and fighting between siblings that they would never tolerate in a visiting child. We should always intervene to curb cruelty in the family, and never believe that it 'teaches children to stand up for themselves'.
The right to early detection
When children are suffering, failing or falling out of line, 'from three to six is the intervention time', says Dr Fiona Caldicott, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Prompt diagnosis and immediate help could save the aggressive seven-year-old from turning into the vicious 17-year-old - unless we prefer to enjoy the luxury of moral outrage when time makes criminals out of them.
The right to education for real life
Schools should be teaching the skills required to sustain a lifelong partnership and bring up healthy children. Full information on personal and sexual relationships from the age of three onwards would be the only solution to the hypocrisy of today's 'too little, too late'.
The right to discipline without physical punishment
The United States loves its paddles, England its canes. Yet Sweden has outlawed corporal punishment for all its children, and is no more lawless than the rest of Europe, while homicides on the US scale are unknown.
The right to protection from abuse
Abuse thrives on secrecy. 'I should have done more, but I was a coward,' said the wife of Endre Keleman, convicted last year of beating, raping and buggering his three daughters, aged seven to their teens. Non- intervention always reinforces the abuser's power and underlines the victim's helplessness. Because children and most adolescents are powerless to defend themselves, adults who have even an inkling that abuse is occurring have a duty to be the child's voice.
The right to intervention
Abusers pick on children who are already vulnerable. Only constant vigilance can keep a child from harm.
When this fails, abusers should be relentlessly exposed and unfailingly prosecuted, with no statute of limitations on their crimes. When a retired priest, Father David Holley, was sent to prison in America in June 1993 for offences against boys, carried out 20 years before, the message went round the world.
The right to reparation
Convicted abusers should be ordered to pay swingeing compensation to their child victims, such as the pounds 39,000 imposed on Keleman in a historic High Court judgment of November 1993.
The right to help and treatment when children offend
Our concern should be with 'children with problems', not 'problem children'. A persistent offender may need to be confined to a secure unit, but should receive a programme of education, training and development with a view to a better future.
The right to a children's commissioner
If we have an ombudsman for those who make insurance claims or take issue with local government, how dare we refuse to give equal if not greater importance to the needs of a child? An official watchdog should have power to defend and promote children's rights, to influence legislation and to ensure national compliance with the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as yet unratified by Britain.
WHAT would all this cost? We are already paying through the nose for neglecting children's needs: it costs more to keep a young offender in secure accommodation for a day than it does to spend a night at the Ritz. Of all the services we provide, the most important must be those that affect the lives of children. Keeping them on the rails is a priority we cannot afford not to fund. For a country to ignore this, or to carp about the cost, amounts to criminal irresponsibility.
Above all, it is irresponsibility by women. As the mothers of these and all future children, as the women who have fought for our own freedoms, we must now fight again on behalf of the child. Standing alone if need be: for it is easier for a woman to crack down on violence in the family or to complain about bullying to a teacher than it is for a man to ask for time off to take his baby to the clinic, or to refuse to work after 5pm in order to spend time with his family. Certainly, it is easier for women everywhere to question existing structures without fear of losing face.
And women in general should be readier to accept new systems in place of the old, to advance and defend the rights and needs of children at all the stages of their lives. This will inevitably involve a challenge to the male world of power and possession, above all to the rights of the authoritarian father, which derive from the most ancient right of all, patriarchal power.
Once again, in standing up for children, feminism must prepare itself to face the same accusations as before: interfering with the course of nature, destroying what is 'natural' and 'normal', upsetting those who were 'quite happy the way they were'.
When we question the domination of parents over children as chattels, and assert children's human rights as people, we are disturbing the same sleep of unreason as when the first mothers of the women's movement fought against the male right to rule.
Truly, the rights of children are the last frontier in the fight for freedom for us all; and children's constant oppression is the last right (or wrong) that patriarchy still inflicts. Until we can rescue children from the age-old silence of acceptance that surrounds their sufferings, and identify their 'problem without a name', flying boys will continue to become wounded men, bright flowers of girls to wither into defeated women, and the extreme casualties - the murdered and the murderers - to increase at every stage.
We can arrest this process, given the political will. We can, and must, change our world, for only this will bring any change for our children. Only when we start to make changes on the lines above, will we start to deserve the joy and privilege of having children. And only then will we be rewarded with the children we deserve.
The writer is the award-winning author of 'The Women's History of the World' and 'The Rites of Man'. The final book of this trilogy, 'The Children We Deserve', is published tomorrow (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99).
Bryan Appleyard's column will be published tomorrow.
In Rosalind Miles's article on children's rights, published on Wednesday 22 June, reference was made to the conviction last year of Endre Kelemen for sexually abusing his daughters. In fact Mr Kelemen's convictions were in 1990 and were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1992. It was last year that Mr Kelemen's three daughters made legal history by successfully suing their father for damages in the High Court. Mr Kelemen is appealing.