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A year of tragedies and triumphs for South Asia’s children

For many of South Asia’s children, 2008 will go down as a year of triumphs and tragedies – a year in which children continued to be recruited in conflicts, yet a year when conflicts were briefly halted for the sake of children’s health; and a year when the food, fuel and financial crises threatened to worsen child malnutrition, yet triggered off important new thinking on protection for the most vulnerable, according to UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia Dan Toole.

In a region which is one of the most emergency prone in the world, nearly 2.8 million lives were shattered by severe floods in Bihar – where at the best of times 58 percent of children under five are undernourished – and also other parts of north east India and Nepal. The earthquake in one of the poorest parts of Pakistan, Balochistan, left more than 100,000 homeless and some 85 percent of schools were destroyed. In early winter, UNICEF responded to these emergencies by working with governments and partners to distribute safe drinking water, providing latrines, blankets, first aid kits, rehydration salts, temporary shelter plastic sheeting and other essential utensils and school kits.

Ongoing conflicts have spread to new areas and humanitarian space and UNICEF’s access to those in need has shrunk dramatically – especially in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan where 150 girls schools in the SWAT region have been forced to close due to attacks by insurgents.

 “It’s a great cruelty that these emergencies in South Asia, whether natural or man-made, always hit the most vulnerable the hardest – mothers, girls and babies,” said Mr. Toole. “For us it is particularly tragic when schools are attacked. These are places where young minds are being formed and where children rightly feel protected and cared for. There can never be 'enemy children' or terrorist children’. No one can ever gain from such attacks but all should learn from them so that 2009 is a year where all sides in all conflicts put children first."

This year, however, was marked by some triumphs too – in Afghanistan, UNICEF and partners negotiated with warring parties to conduct Days of Tranquility in September when 1.8 million children were vaccinated against polio and given Vitamin A capsules to boost their immune systems. Global Hand Washing Day in October saw some 100 million children across South Asia wash their hands with soap – the simplest, cheapest way of reducing diarrhea and pneumonia, the biggest killers of children in the region. Infant mortality rates are also coming down in the region.

“These achievements give us much cause for hope, that even in the face of the finance, food and fuel crisis, together with our partners in government and NGOs, we can make a difference for South Asia’s children,” said Mr. Toole. “We look forward to making much more progress in the region, especially on reducing the numbers of children suffering from malnutrition and on improving sanitation. So it is a bittersweet end of the year, but the bitter taste is severe for millions deprived of their rights in a region with so much potential.”

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