MEXICO CITY / BRUSSELS, 11 December 2002 - Asserting that tens of millions of children around the world feel disconnected from political institutions and lack trust in their governments, UNICEF said today that children must be given more of a voice and more ways to participate in decisions affecting their lives.
"In a world wounded by conflict and divided by poverty it is absolutely essential that children be embraced, listened to, and given a role in crafting a better future for themselves," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "Enabling children and adolescents to participate constructively in their communities and nations is crucial to nurturing their inherent optimism and preparing them for a constructive and meaningful adulthood."
Launching UNICEF's flagship annual report, "The State of the World's Children 2003," Bellamy said surveys carried out on four continents over the past three years with a base sample of 40,000 children had made clear that millions have doubts about the usefulness of voting as a method of improving their lives and do not see government leaders as role models. (read the polls)
"Through these findings, children have told us something very important about the values they are growing up with," Bellamy said. "Our first response must be simply to listen to what they're saying, because in fact what they're saying is that we do not listen enough. Our second response must be to engage children and adolescents, give them a positive role in issues affecting them, and seize their special insights as well as their eagerness to help in creating positive change."
Bellamy said the recent surveys, coupled with UNICEF's positive experience involving children in its programs, had led the organization to devote its flagship report to the subject. The State of the World's Children 2003 examines the largely unexplored issue of "child participation" - that is, the degree to which children and young people are enabled to constructively engage in issues that affect their lives. The report asserts that participation of children is essential to preparing them for the responsibilities they will assume as adults, as well as to more cohesive societies.
"Through participation at early ages in issues that concern them - far from promoting anarchy or disrespect for authority, or undermining parental authority - we see a generation of young people who are more respectful and concerned about their rights and the rights of others," the report states.
The report also asserts that there is a serious downside to leaving children out. It cautions that when children are excluded from the process of decision-making and are provided few opportunities to engage constructively in matters that directly affect their lives as they mature, they fail to develop vital skills, including the to ability express themselves, negotiate differences, make responsible life choices, engage in positive dialogue or assume responsibility for self, family, and community.
What Children Add
Beyond the long-term benefits to children themselves and the societies they grow to lead, State of the World's Children 2003 finds that when children are given an appropriate way to participate in adult decisions and action, those decisions and actions tend to be more positive, more creative, more energetic, and more fruitful.
"Children and adolescents have proved that when they are involved, they can make a difference in the world around them. They have ideas, experiences and insights that enrich adult understanding and make a positive contribution to adult actions," the report states.
It cites numerous examples of how children, when listened to and given a chance to act, have been able to bring positive change in their communities. Examples:
· In the province of Baluchistan, Pakistan, where the female literacy rate is 2 percent, local boy scout troops began lobbying education officials to allow girls to attend their schools. Their efforts resulted in 2,500 new girls enrolling in school in the first year.
· In the Abia state of Nigeria, students from a local high school organized a door-to-door campaign to educate the region's 25,000 Afugiri population about the importance of immunization. As a result, hundreds of Afugiri woman who would not otherwise not have been fully aware of the benefits of immunization took their children to the local health clinics for care. Theses efforts likely saved hundreds of lives.
"I think society gains from young people and children's participation because of the freshness that children and young people bring to issues," Bellamy said. "They might not have the most feasible solutions all the time, but they rarely just assume that it's business as usual. So there are more opportunities, broader ideas thrown on to the table. And from those opportunities more success is possible."
Reaching the Millennium Goals
Bellamy noted that of the eight major goals adopted by the nations of the world in 2000 - known as the Millennium Development Goals - six pertain to children and will require sustained investment in children's well-being. She said that listening to children, understanding their unique perspectives, and involving them in efforts to reach the Millennium Goals is crucial to success. Most of the goals are set for 2015. But one, pertaining to improving educational opportunity for girls, is set for 2005.
The UNICEF report argues that world leaders must tap young people and recognize them as important resources. And it calls on governments to begin teaching children democratic values in early childhood by expanding children's access to education and participation in civil society and government.
"If we fail to promote child participation from an early age, we are missing an amazing opportunity to deepen democracy and human dignity around the world," Bellamy said. "That failure leaves young people with a sense of powerlessness and exclusion from society - and that can carry a great cost."
The UNICEF report points out 150 million children still suffer from malnutrition, that 120 million school school-age children are not in school (the majority girls), and that 6,000 children and young people are infected with HIV every day. The report argues that engaging children and young people and including them in the decision-making processes and in the prevention effort that affect their lives is essential to addressing these problems.
"Listening to the opinions of children does not mean simply endorsing their views," the report notes. "Rather, engaging them in dialogue and exchange allows them to learn constructive ways of influencing the world around them. The social give and take of participation encourages children to assume increasing responsibilities as active, tolerant and democratic citizens in formation."
About the international launch in Mexico City
Bellamy launched The State of the World's Children 2003 in Mexico City today, where she also took part in an inter-generational dialogue that brought Mexican children to the table with national leaders, including President Vicente Fox.
Bellamy said that launching the report in the Americas was especially appropriate because the region has been a leader in recognizing and implementing child rights, including the right of children to participate in all matters affecting them.
"Latin America has shown outstanding leadership when it comes to listening to and respecting the views of children," Bellamy said. "I am especially grateful to President Fox for his commitment to children's rights and for showing his nation how important and valuable it can be to engage and involve children in building a better future."
About the European launch in Brussels
In Brussels, the report was launched today in conjunction with UNICEF Belgium's 50th anniversary celebrations.
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kul Gautam led a discussion on child participation with the help of young people from Benin, Congo, Italy, Namibia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and Belgium taking part. The children shared their perspectives and ideas at an event called, "Children, Actors of Change." Also taking part were Vanessa Redgrave, UNICEF Special Representative for the Performing Arts, and leading political figures from Belgium and the European Parliament.
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Monica Sayrols, UNICEF Media,
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Kate Donovan, UNICEF Media, New York (212) 824-6722