UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
In his closing remarks at the UNICEF Executive Board's annual session of 2014, UNICEF Executive Board President H.E. Mr. Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations, looked toward a world where all children can survive and thrive, but we must do more to achieve that goal.
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By Kristin Taylor
The Executive Board reviews UNICEF activities and approves its policies, country programmes and budgets. It comprises 36 members, representing the five regional groups of Member States at the United Nations. The Executive Board meets three times a year at United Nations Headquarters in New York – in a first regular session (January/February), annual session (May/June) and second regular session (September).
NEW YORK, United States of America, 9 June 2014 – To secure and fulfil equal rights for girls creates a brighter future for all children. Imagining the life of the world’s future girls is what guided UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake’s opening remarks at the 2014 annual session of UNICEF’s Executive Board.
A girl born today, Mr. Lake said, will benefit from advancements across many spheres, from health care to information technology. But her reality will also be beset by obstacles: growing social and political instability, widening economic inequity, rising incidence of natural disasters and increasing epidemics of non-communicable diseases, among them.
While these are challenges that future generations will face collectively, the hurdles will be higher for girls, who are exposed to greater deprivation and disadvantage because of their gender.
Will the girl of the future “enjoy opportunities to put her skills to work and earn a living for herself and her family?” asked Mr. Lake. “Or will persistent gender discrimination – even active, organized resistance to girls’ rights – reserve for her brother the greatest opportunities?”
Denying girls’ full equality is not only to deprive them of their basic child and human rights, but also to deprive girls’ communities of their full potential. The danger and consequences are real. As Mr. Lake went on to consider, will the girl of the future, by suffering gender discrimination and other forms of inequity, “grow to see the world through a lens of mistrust and pessimism – her view of the world and her responsibility to others dimmed by the deprivations she’s endured?”
A plan to fight gender inequality
While girls’ rights have long been at the centre of UNICEF programmes worldwide, a push is underway to ensure that gender outcomes are integrated across all focus areas of the organization’s work. Worldwide, for example, girls and women predominantly bear responsibility for procuring water for their households, and in many developing countries, that task can be so time-consuming that it precludes a girl’s full participation in school, or takes her so far from home that she is left vulnerable to sexual assault. To provide a community with safe drinking water, then, is also to provide the girls who live there with a greater chance of getting an education, with increased protection from abuse.
On 5 June, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta and Principal Adviser on Gender Rights and Civic Engagement Anju Malhotra presented the newly launched UNICEF Gender Action Plan 2014–2017 (GAP), which was approved by the Executive Board during its annual session. The GAP outlines the organization’s objectives for achieving a more gender-equal world through emphasis on four targeted priorities: advancing girls’ secondary education; ending child marriage; promoting gender-responsive adolescent health; and addressing gender-based violence in emergencies.
Advancing girls’ secondary education: Girls’ education has been shown not only to benefit girls themselves, but also to yield positive results for nearly every development outcome, including reducing child and maternal mortality, ending poverty, achieving equitable growth and changing social norms. But the widest disparities between boys’ and girls’ attendance are at the secondary-school level, and if current trends continue, gender parity in secondary education will only be achieved in 62 of 168 countries by 2015. Marginalized girls – including girls in poor or rural communities, who are from ethnic minority groups or who are living with disabilities – are at even greater risk of not completing secondary school. UNICEF’s work to overcome these barriers includes focusing on improved gender equity from within secondary education, such as through recruitment and training of more female teachers, as well as addressing financial barriers families face in sending their girls to school, including through provision of stipends, scholarships and cash transfers.
Ending child marriage: Approximately 70 million – nearly one in three – of the world’s young women aged 20–24 years living in developing countries were married before their eighteenth birthday. Of those, one third married before age 15. Child marriage is a grave rights violation that paves the way for other abuses. Marriage cuts a girl’s childhood short and often forces her to drop out of school. It leaves her more likely to experience violence and abuse, and at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. And because her body has not yet fully developed, she is more likely to suffer complications during pregnancy and childbirth – among the leading causes of death of adolescent girls worldwide. Child marriage is also closely tied to socio-economic conditions: girls from poor households are more than twice as likely as their richer peers to be married early. UNICEF continues working to address the underlying factors, such as poverty, that lead to child marriage, while simultaneously advocating with policymakers around the globe to establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage, with full participation and consent required. UNICEF’s work to keep children in school is also bolstering efforts to end early marriage – against which education, especially at the secondary level, has proven to be the best preventive measure.
In his closing remarks at the UNICEF Executive Board's annual session of 2014, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake (right) emphasized the importance of UNICEF's staff to the organization's work around the world. Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta (left) and Principal Adviser on Gender Rights and Civic Engagement Anju Malhotra presented the newly launched UNICEF Gender Action Plan 2014–2017 (GAP),
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Promoting gender-responsive adolescent health: Over the next decade, as many as 30 million girls will be at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) – and of suffering both its immediate and long-term consequences: severe pain, prolonged bleeding, infection, severe psychological distress, prolonged or obstructed labour, infertility and even death. As girls enter adolescence, more health concerns emerge, in addition to those related to early marriage. In areas where homes or educational facilities lack adequate access to sanitation facilities, for example, girls may find themselves without the privacy necessary for menstrual hygiene management, which can leave them vulnerable to indignity, as well as sexual exploitation, and at greater risk of dropping out of school. Among other initiatives, UNICEF works to promote national policies addressing the health need of girls; to support reform of practices related to FGM/C; and to boost the availability of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, including in schools.
Addressing gender-based violence in emergencies: Gender-based violence remains one of the world’s most overlooked human rights violations. In situations of conflict or natural disaster, the risk of exposure to violence increases for girls and women. Displacement can leave girls living in camps with insufficient security, separated from their families. In some conflicts, combatants turn to sexual violence as a weapon of war. In emergency contexts, girls also become more vulnerable to early marriage, which families sometimes see as a means of protecting their daughters from sexual assault – or as a solution to diminished financial means. UNICEF is scaling up its response to gender-based violence by ensuring quicker access to health services and psychosocial support for survivors, while also scaling up prevention programmes.
Driving more results for children
In addition to the GAP, the UNICEF Executive Board approved several other proposals during its annual session that will enable UNICEF to deliver better results for the world’s children. To help support UNICEF’s expanding programme and advocacy activities, a fourth Deputy Executive Director position was created, whose management will focus on the achievement of results in the field.
“To ensure that [UNICEF’s] drive for results is sufficiently supported at the regional and country team levels,” said UNICEF Executive Board President H.E. Mr. Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations, “I am pleased that we have taken action today to create a new Deputy Executive Director position to strengthen clear chains of management responsibility and accountability for results.”
The Board also approved budgets for several country programmes – Afghanistan, Angola, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Comoros, Kenya, Timor-Leste, Tunisia and Sierra Leone – as well as for a programme reaching Palestinian children and women in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic and the State of Palestine. Additionally, the Board approved extensions of country programmes in Algeria, Argentina, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, the Syrian Arab Republic and Uganda.
“[T]he world today needs to achieve transformative outcomes for its children,” he said. “The business-as-usual approach of the past 25 years, or even the past 10 years, is simply not ambitious enough. In Africa, and elsewhere, we must set ourselves ambitious and transformative goals that we must all strive to meet.”
UNICEF will continue to define those ambitions during its Executive Board’s second regular session of 2014, scheduled for 9–12 September.