Manila – 4 April 2005
UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy:
Mr. President, Excellencies, Members of Parliament, Colleagues, Friends:
It is an enormous honor to be here with you. UNICEF is very proud of its growing partnership with the IPU, and I am grateful for this opportunity to address you.
I have spent the past ten years as Executive Director of UNICEF traveling the world fighting for the fulfillment of children’s rights. I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting with virtually every one of the governments you represent. I have had the joy of seeing real progress – such as an 18 percent decline in child mortality since 1990. But I have also seen the relentless marginalization and exploitation of children that continues in every corner of the globe.
Because of what I know about the challenges that still face children in every country, I viewed it as essential to accept your kind invitation to be here. With just a few weeks remaining in my tenure at UNICEF I could hardly imagine a more meaningful venue for advancing the well-being of children far into the future.
So I am here to make a special appeal to you, the lawmakers of the world. I am here because you have the power to create real and lasting change for children.
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UNICEF believes in the power of lawmakers because we believe in the power of
laws to improve the lives of children. We believe that every child’s right to survival, education, equality, and protection cannot be ensured by mere acts of charity; fulfilling these rights takes acts of law – and acts of leadership.
I believe that parliamentarians are the most important leaders when it comes to children. Heads of state are important, yes. Ministers and government experts are key players. And civil society plays an irreplaceable role. But truthfully, almost every positive step for children requires some legislative act or another. Without your active leadership, change comes haltingly. With your active leadership, great leaps are possible.
You have incredible powers at your disposal. Establishing strong policy direction and enacting specific laws to protect children are only the most obvious. Equally powerful, from our point of view, is the parliamentary power of inquiry. Your power to probe, to demand, to raise issues, to alter attitudes – these are incredible powers. You can lead simply by asking tough questions, by demanding answers from across the social spectrum. As frontline representatives of ordinary people, your voice has unique resonance. When you give voice to the simple but universal yearning for human dignity, your power swells.
I was in Manila port yesterday learning about a partnership that fights child trafficking on the big ferries that move among the islands. It’s a great program, and very much needed, that involves shipping firms, port authorities, local NGOs, harbor workers and police. A local harbor policeman got up to speak about the role he and his colleagues play. He was nervous, and he was clearly unaccustomed to public speaking. Yet in his simple way he nonetheless spoke about human rights – and I could see the pride and dignity grow in him as he spoke.
Those values don’t come from nowhere. They come from leaders like you.
I won’t gloss over the realities of what you are up against. Focusing on children in your legislative agendas is not as easy as it sounds. I know there are powerful interests that would prefer that your governments continue to spend more on military forces than on social services. I know there are entrenched bureaucracies that make change in the education and health sectors difficult. And I know that in fighting the exploitation of children and women, there are unscrupulous economic forces working to keep the issue off the agenda and out of the spotlight.
But there are powerful reasons to fight for children, as well. Chief among them is simply this: Anything that is truly good for your nation begins with investment in, and protection of, children and women. That’s a fact. Give children a healthy start in life, and you set them up to reach their full potential. Give children a basic education, and you give them a chance to break the cycle of poverty. Protect children from abuse, and you preserve their inherent sense of dignity.
These are the building blocks of any healthy society, as you well know. It should therefore come as no surprise that your agenda here – promoting the rights of women, ending impunity in war, fighting AIDS, reducing poverty, and ensuring the spread of human dignity and freedom – are also central to UNICEF’s agenda.
In fact our State of the World’s Children report for 2005 identifies conflict, poverty, and HIV/AIDS as the key challenges facing children and women today. It finds that more than 1 billion children are being robbed of childhood by the damage of these three forces. And it finds in particular that it is the most marginalized among us – the very poor, the minorities, the geographically remote, and frankly, women and girls – who are most likely to suffer.
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So before I close it is women on whom I would like to briefly focus, especially as the empowerment of women is the subject of your session this morning.
I have occasionally been criticized for putting emphasis on women and girls in my tenure at UNICEF. Yet I would argue that it is not UNICEF that places special emphasis on women and girls.
It is those who deny more girls than boys a seat in the classroom that have placed that emphasis. It is those who allow 500,000 women to die in childbirth every year who place that emphasis. It is those who turn away as HIV spreads ever more rapidly among women and girls that place that emphasis. And it is those who allow the systematic rape of women of girls as a weapon of war who are sending the loudest message.
UNICEF has a deeply vested interest in combating this reality. We know that women are the primary caretakers of children around the world. The better off women are, the better off their children are. There is also a mountain of studies that shows that when women are educated, when they are moderately empowered to earn an income, and generally healthy, their children are more likely to survive, go to school, and grow to become productive citizens themselves.
That’s why empowering women and girls is one of the Millennium Development Goals. And why human rights are at the core of the Millennium Declaration. By the way, it is the fulfillment of the Millennium Declaration that is indeed the true goal. The MDGs are markers of how well we fulfill the Millennium Declaration and ensure each individual on earth their fundamental human rights.
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In just a few months, the General Assembly will meet to review progress in achieving the MDGs. There will be much to applaud. But the gains so far have been uneven within countries and within regions. And the sad truth is that, with less than ten years to go, the world is still very far from meeting its commitments to children and women.
You have the power to change that. You have the authority to bring an end to “business as usual.” And you have our support.
As I move on, UNICEF continues to look forward to working with you. Later today I will join the leadership of the IPU in launching our second joint publication – this time a handbook on stopping child trafficking. It offers practical guidance on what you as legislators can do to take action.
I hope you will.
Correction. I know you will. We have rock-solid faith in you as leaders for children.
Good luck. And thank you very much.