13 May 2004. Maria Calivis addresses the Sarajevo Conference on Children in Europe and Central Asia
Statement by Maria Calivis
Thank you Madam Chair. Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen. This is my first opportunity to meet many of you since I became UNICEF Regional Director for CEE/CIS and Baltics in February this year. I’m delighted to be able to address you this morning and I look forward to having discussions with you over the next two days.
If we are to build a region fit for children, we need to know what is happening to those children – who they are, where they are and how well they are doing. We need to know which children are falling through the cracks in services, policies, programmes, and we need to know why.
Let me start with some great news. There is economic growth in almost every country in this region for the first time in more than a decade. In the East, most countries are reaching or have passed their 1989 levels of GDP per capita and it is safe to say that the decade of transition, at least in economic terms, is now over. In the West, we have seen ten years of continued economic growth. The countries represented at this Conference now constitute a social, economic and cultural region with unique linkages and, very importantly, with resources. Just two weeks ago, we witnessed the celebrations around EU accession, the momentum of common purpose and of growing bonds between nations. Our region can now look forward to a Decade of Opportunity for Children. These are good times and we need to be sure that children will reap the benefits.
But how to monitor progress for children? How far have we come since Berlin in 2001, and since the UN Special Session on Children in New York in 2002, when governments pledged to build a World Fit for Children? And what should we be monitoring?
I would argue that monitoring progress for children goes beyond statistics. It needs, above all, to be grounded in child rights and, therefore, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It needs to be guided by the vision of a World Fit for Children, a world that gives every child the best start in life; allows every child the opportunity to develop their full potential, to be heard, and to be protected against exploitation, violence and abuse. And it needs to be a platform for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
It must, therefore, look at the obstacles to the fulfilment of child rights, such as poverty, exclusion and lack of participation, as well as their manifestations. I firmly believe that this region can lead the way on child rights monitoring, but this will require a new approach, a new way of thinking and, of course, new indicators.
Let me begin by signaling areas of clear progress since Berlin. Many countries across the region continue to reduce infant and child mortality, pushing back the frontiers of our knowledge on the prevention of needless deaths. We have also seen progress on micronutrient deficiencies. Countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that were lagging behind in the battle against iodine deficiency in 2001have made great strides towards universal salt iodisation – a priority issue in Berlin.
And we have seen a major new political commitment to tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic across the region. This political momentum – reaffirmed in Dublin earlier this year – must be accelerated and backed by the necessary resources if we are to outrun the virus itself.
Progress in these areas is directly linked to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in the region. Indeed, a recent assessment by the World Bank suggests that this region appears to be on track to reach a number, if not all, of the MDGs. But we cannot be complacent. Parts of this region may not reach the goals for reduction of poverty or mortality. Most of the MDGs are about children and will only be reached if children move up the political agenda.
Infant and child mortality, iodine deficiency levels and HIV infection rates are all, to some extent quantifiable. It is when we examine other – perhaps less quantifiable – aspects of child rights that we begin to run into problems.
Child protection, for example, is an area of growing concern. The child ensnared by a trafficking network, the child moving across a border to an uncertain future, the child in an institution, the child caught up in the criminal justice system, the child suffering violence in the home, at school or on the street, the child of a displaced family – all of them deserve our complete, undivided and urgent attention. But this is where we find the biggest gaps in the data. How, for example, to monitor the number of children being trafficked, when trafficking is, by its very nature, a clandestine, criminal act? How to measure violence against children, when it is often disguised as discipline and condoned by society? Indeed should we be focusing our monitoring efforts on the sheer numbers?
Perhaps we need a different starting point. Of course it important to have information on the end result of a problem – how many children are living below a given poverty line, or the number of children living in institutions, for example. But we also need information on each child’s environment and on the effectiveness of the systems intended to protect them.
We need to change the question from “how many?” to “why?” Why are children so vulnerable to poverty, injecting drug use and HIV/AIDS? Why are children drifting on to the streets or into the world of the traffickers?
If we are talking about elimination, rather than reduction, of child poverty, we must go behind the national averages to look at pockets of poverty, their causes and possible solution. This means that data must be gathered, analysed and disaggregated in new ways.
The fact is that we do not have vital information on three key obstacles to child rights in this region – poverty, discrimination and lack of participation. Economic growth may give us the opportunity to address these obstacles, but only if we have the answers to that key question, “why”.
First, child poverty. The Berlin conference called for the elimination of child poverty – a call repeated by Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director yesterday. Yes, we must monitor the level of child poverty, but at UNICEF we are concerned about its broader impact – an impact that goes way beyond the lack of family income. Poverty undermines a child’s confidence, self esteem and capacity to participate in society and heightens their feelings of exclusion.
Even here, I have some good news. A number of countries now have child poverty at the heart of their economic and social policy, and there are some countries where such levels are falling – the result of social and economic policy working in synergy to benefit children. It is clear that the elimination of child poverty is not a question of national wealth alone, but of how that wealth is distributed. It means ensuring that families have access to generous child benefit systems, flexible childcare and social support. It means investing in early childhood development for all children to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. It is these processes that we need to monitor. The bad news is that this is not happening everywhere, that not every country sees this as a top priority.
Second, discrimination, exclusion and inequality. We cannot eliminate poverty without eliminating the discrimination that feeds into, and is fed by, exclusion and poverty. Most countries have legislation to prohibit discrimination, but it is clear that legislation alone is not enough. While discrimination and exclusion have been debated in many countries in this region, we feel that these debates have overlooked a crucial element: the impact on children. At present, there is little or no systematic gathering of data on discrimination as it affects children. It may be argued that discrimination can not be rooted out. I would argue that it can, if States take the lead to challenge discrimination wherever it occurs, and put children at the heart of this challenge.
Schools, for example, are central to efforts to challenge discrimination. But data on education tend to stress achievements in such areas as mathematics, science or language skills. While these are important, they tell us little about discrimination. The working group on education at this Conference will look at the role of schools as a safeguard against exclusion. It could not be more timely – there is an urgent need for data that will capture this neglected aspect of education.
Equality is harder to measure, and its effects on poverty are not clear. However we know that there was a rapid rise in inequality in the east of the region in the early 1990s, and the gulf between rich and poor is as wide as ever.
Finally, participation. If we are to make progress on child rights it is essential that children and young people, especially those who are the most marginalised, participate in decisions and have their views reflected in policy making. There is a growing recognition of the right of all children and young people to participate in the decisions that affect them and their participation in Conferences like this one is becoming the norm – and quite rightly, as their contributions are essential. The goal is now to ensure their participation in decision-making processes in every area that affects their lives – policy development, social services, in schools, NGOs, the media. I’m glad to say that new tools are being developed to gauge the quality of their participation, as well as its extent. But progress in this area is still modest
So how best to measure our progress for children? In this rapidly changing world, there is one unchanging standard to help us: the United Nations Convention of the Right of the Child. The Convention sets down principles and standards for the care and protection of every child. It is our benchmark for action and cooperation on behalf of children.
On the CRC itself, I have more good news. Every country gathered here today has ratified the Convention and almost every country is building the CRC into national legislation. Many have ratified its Optional Protocols on children in armed conflict and on the sale and trafficking of children. We have also seen a remarkable increase in the number independent ombudspersons for children – institutions that are essential to the monitoring of progress on the Convention.
As a result of the CRC, the systems and the structures already exist to monitor child rights. Countries must submit their State party Reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Childs at regular intervals – crucial public statements of their progress.
One of the strengths of the Convention is its clarity on accountability, on who needs to take action, and what resources and capacities are needed. With the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its related systems, the obligation is in place – the obligation to guide our indicators for children in Europe and Central Asia. The gap that exists between obligation and reality can be closed if we work together to strengthen the CRC process by complementing the Country Reporting mechanisms.
Let me close by coming back to the point from where we started. This can indeed be a decade of opportunity for children. Whether it will be or not depends on the decisions of governments and other partners gathered here today, and on the questions we ask.