To the 5th Ministerial Consultation on Shaping the Future for Children
Bejing - 14 May 2001
Madame Wu Yi, Distinguished Delegates, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am extremely pleased to join you for this 5th Ministerial Consultation on Shaping the Future for Children - and to address what UNICEF believes that future must hold.
Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation to the Government of the People's Republic of China, not only for their warm hospitality in hosting this important gathering, but for its committed partnership with UNICEF as we work together to build a better future for every child.
Madame President, there are few national leaders who do not understand as a matter of basic human instinct that the future of every country is directly linked to the future of its children - and that by investing in children and in the families that sustain them, a country is ultimately investing in its own development.
Children are the bearers of our common future. The entire community of nations acknowledged as much when they embraced the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child - and vowed, little more than a decade ago, to fulfil the goals of the World Summit for Children.
Thanks to the determination of governments, multilateral organisations and the work of countless other dedicated people, including non-governmental groups and the business community - many of them UNICEF partners - the world has witnessed triumphs for children and their families on a scale unlike any other.
Because of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is now widespread recognition that every child, no matter how poor or otherwise marginalised, has a whole galaxy of fundamental rights: the right to health and nutrition, to a primary education of good quality, especially for girls; to clean water and adequate sanitation, to gender equality; and to freedom from exploitation and abuse.
Moreover, children have a right to have a name and a nationality - as well as to express themselves freely and, in line with their evolving capacities, to participate in decisions that affect them.
This wide recognition of the rights of children is not merely rhetorical - far from it. In scores of countries, in every region of the world, the importance of child rights is reflected in concrete changes in law, in policy, and in practice.
As a result the 1990's were a time of remarkable progress toward the World Summit for Children goals in a variety of areas. The East Asia and the Pacific region has made major strides toward those goals - and the results are unmistakable.
Overall child mortality has been reduced substantially over the last decade, thanks in large part to increased access to health services, high immunisation coverage, and the widespread use of oral rehydration therapy and other primary health care interventions. We have also seen major reductions in iodine deficiency disorders, the result of increased access to iodised salt.
In education, the region's net primary enrolment ratio, at 97 per cent, is the highest in the developing world - and enrolment levels for girls and boys are nearly the same in most countries.
Madame Chairman, these and other gains for children are not random events; they are the result of decades of sustained investment in health, education, nutrition and other basic social services for children.
But impressive as these achievements for children may be, they are not enough.
More than a decade after the World Summit for Children, nearly 20 per cent of the region's under-5 children - some 30 million of them - still suffer from severe and moderate malnutrition. Approximately one-quarter of the region's population - some 450 million people - still lack access to safe drinking water, while more than half the population do not have adequate sanitation. As a result, some 1.5 million of this region's young children still die each year as a result of largely preventable causes. This works out to three child deaths every minute - some 4,300 each day. And millions more children survive, only to emerge from early childhood irreparably damaged by disease and malnutrition.
And this toll is occurring in the face of daunting new challenges. Deepening poverty and inequity remain immense obstacles to human development. The ravages of HIV/AIDS and malaria, continuing gender discrimination and violence, declining trust in political structures - these are all issues that are having profoundly negative effects on the well-being of children.
Although the HIV/AIDS problem is still at an early stage in most Pacific and East Asian countries, more than 2.4 million people in the region are already infected with HIV - and hundreds of thousands have already died from AIDS. If the region is to avoid the fate of sub-Saharan Africa, where the spread of the virus has caused a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions, governments must act now to mobilise all the human and financial resources necessary to contain its spread.
Yet for all of these threats to children, I submit that we now stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for reaching the remaining goals that were set at the World Summit - and for mobilising a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.
It is an opportune moment because we know so much more about what we must do to ensure the rights of children and address their needs. And this includes the knowledge, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that what happens to children in the earliest years of their lives is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.
We know, too, that it is crucial to ensure that every girl and boy receives a primary education of good quality; and that every adolescent must be afforded ample opportunity to develop and to participate meaningfully in society.
Madame President, the future is in our hands as never before.
For if we know anything, it is that in a $30 trillion global economy, the knowledge, the resources and the strategies already exist to give children the best possible start in life - which begins with breastfeeding and immunization and then is followed by early care and protection; education; and help in navigating the complex passage from adolescence to adulthood. These are crucial first steps if we are to break the endless cycle of global poverty.
A lynchpin in these efforts is education - and greatly increased investments in education, as well as improvements in its quality, will be of immense benefit to the children of the region, especially for girls.
Only education can put young women on a path to economic and social empowerment; help them make the most of their abilities; and provide a means for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality.
We know from hard empirical evidence that girls who are educated generally have healthier and better-educated children; that they are more likely to understand what they must do to protect themselves and their families against HIV/AIDS and other diseases; and that they tend to have smaller families.
Ensuring quality education and basic literacy will also open the doors to information technology and the new economy - and prevent the "digital divide" from becoming a new gender divide.
But girls' education is more than a cost-effective investment; more than an economic issue; more than a desirable aspiration that societies should try to provide. Education is a human right, proclaimed by global agreements ranging from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Improvements in the quality of education will go far to help reduce the large number of girls who would otherwise drop out of school and become easy targets for exploitation and trafficking before they reach the legal age of employment.
Indeed, trafficking - especially for child sexual exploitation and exploitative child labour - continues to be as major problem for the region, and far more determined measures will be necessary if it is to be consigned, at long last, to history's scrap heap.
Madame President, UNICEF is convinced that we are at a moment in history when the world may finally be ready to alter the course of human development by decisively shifting national investments to favour child well-being - and all of us here today can help accelerate that shift as we approach the Special Session on Children.
That is why UNICEF has begun working with all our partners to help mobilise a Global Movement for Children - a worldwide campaign to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.
For it is only through broad and committed partnerships that we will reach the remaining World Summit goals; tackle poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict; and establish a comprehensive agenda for children for the first 10 years of this new century.
To succeed, the Global Movement will need to enlist not only established leaders, but people of influence representing every part of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and private enterprise to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.
President Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel have already assumed a direct and personal role in that effort, telling leaders from every walk of life that if we want a just, equitable and thriving world, we must invest in children now.
Distinguished Delegates, your leadership is essential if we are to mobilise a global commitment to children for the first part of this new century - a commitment that UNICEF believes will spark a momentous shift in national investments to favour the survival, protection, full development and participation of all children.
That is why UNICEF has every expectation that heads of State and Government will appoint Personal Representatives to attend the final Preparatory Committee meeting that begins on June 11 - and that top national leaders will themselves come to the Special Session with specific commitments, including action plans that involve civil society, especially children and young people themselves.
For they, along with NGOs and countless others in civil society, have key roles to play in mobilising groups and encouraging action locally. And there are exciting possibilities in the prospect of development partnerships with the business community and the private sector.
But in the final analysis, Madame President, it is governments who remain the primary actors in development - and it is they who must lead.
And as you well know, it was governments that declared, on September 30, 1990, that "there is no task nobler than to give every child a better future."
Madame President, Distinguished Delegates: may your work this week be suffused with the spirit of that ambition.