Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here to introduce my tenth and final State of the World’s Children report as Executive Director of UNICEF.
This year’s State of the World’s Children was given the title “Childhood Under Threat” for a simple reason. The report concludes that half of all children in the world today suffer from some form of extreme deprivation. Whether it is lack of water, lack of health care, lack of schooling, or lack of protection; whether it is displacement in war, exploitation due to economic desperation, or the losses caused by HIV/AIDS, more than 1 billion children are being robbed of childhood.
And when that many children are robbed of childhood, our shared future is compromised.
This report looks at the three major underlying forces disrupting childhood: poverty, conflict and AIDS. It finds:
· That 1 in 3 children has no access to clean water, sanitation or basic health
· That 55 of the 59 conflicts since 1990 have been within countries, with the result that nearly half of those killed in war since 1990 have been children
· And that there are now more than 15 million children orphaned by AIDS – with millions more affected by the deaths of adults in their lives.
These statistics only scratch the surface of what this report is about. Fundamentally it is about a failure of leadership. It has been 15 years since every nation on earth signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which set out a basic, universal standard for a healthy, protected, decent childhood for every human being. And progress has been made toward that standard, there is no question. Yet with half of all children still deprived of childhood, we are clearly failing to meet our commitments.
Deprivation of services, conflict, the way AIDS is spreading younger and younger and further and further – all these things are related. Poor allocation of national resources over time often leads to internal conflict. Conflict spreads HIV more readily, and causes even greater deprivations than those it set out to correct. Disrupted childhoods lead to another generation of adults who never reach their full potential, and the poverty cycle continues.
The report examines each issue independently and makes recommendations for steps governments needs to take. I won’t go into these now. The entire report and supplemental material can be found on the UNICEF Web site at www.unicef.org
The key point is that we remain far short of delivering the kind of childhood we said we wanted for our children.
After ten years at UNICEF, I’d like to make a few personal observations. The first is that war is never good for children. When I come back from places like northern Uganda, where children run away from their villages at night to avoid being abducted by rebels; from DRC, where children and women are systematically raped as a weapon of war; from Nepal where schools are deliberately targeted as recruiting centers and as soft spots in the community; Afghanistan, where, God help us, girls still face enormous discrimination; and, yes, Iraq, where increased school enrollment demonstrates parental desire and commitment to change things, but where nutrition is worse – when I return home from these place I am more convinced than ever that war has no short or medium-term benefits for children.
Maybe for a generation of children born long after the conflict has ended, life is improved. But in today’s wars, where civilians have become the prime targets, there is rarely a justification for war that mitigates the suffering and loss of war. That goes for all of today’s wars, whoever is behind them and for whatever stated reasons. We have to accept responsibility for the fact that children in the millions are suffering when we go to battle.
Ladies and gentlemen, childhood is under threat not for mysterious reasons that strain our imaginations, but because of deliberate choices made by governments and others in power. Poverty doesn’t persist because of nothing; war doesn’t emerge from nowhere; HIV doesn’t spread by choice of its own. These are our choices. How we allocate resources, how we assess impact of our decisions, how often we consider children in our choices – these are the moments that matter.
The flow of childhood never subsides, it never rests. It just flows irrepressibly forward, waiting for no one to perfect the environment or circumstances. Maybe that’s why we are so passive about childhood – after all, it just keeps coming, with each succeeding generation of children, new hope and, eventually, old disappointments.
But although they may seem intractable, poverty, conflict and AIDS can be curtailed, they can be slowed, they can be bent to our will. Once we decide in favor of protecting childhood, we can accomplish nearly anything.
I have seen many things in my years at UNICEF, many great achievements for children. But frankly I have seen many more opportunities missed and deliberate acts of greed and knowing short-sightedness. I sit before you today to tell you that despite steady progress, the state of the world’s children is not what it could be, what it ought to be, what we have promised to make it. Meanwhile, childhood keeps rolling forward, and for half of those in this age group it is a childhood under threat.
We can do better.
I am Carol Bellamy, and it has been an enormous privilege to fight for childhood these past ten years.