Speech by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director at Third Committee of the 66th Session of the General Assembly
New York, 12 October 2011
Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen:
Thank you, Ambassador Hussein, for that kind introduction, and thank you all for joining us today.
On behalf of the Secretary-General, I am pleased to present these reports on three critical issues affecting the lives of millions of children:
The status of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, focusing on children with disabilities, drafted together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights;
The girl child, focusing especially on the serious impact of early and forced marriage;
And the follow up to the special session of the General Assembly on Children, focusing on our commitments to build a world fit for all children.
The reports offer highly factual, succinct descriptions of the progress we all – especially so many of the governments represented here – have made in these areas, and the huge challenges remaining.
Each report covers a different subject, but they share a common theme: The undeniable fact that too many children are being left behind, deprived of their right to thrive and grow – simply because they were born female, or have a disability, or live in one of the world’s poorest and most isolated places.
Rather than discussing in detail the data reflected in these reports, let us first consider the lives of the children those statistics represent:
Imagine the lives of children with disabilities, whose needs – and whose potential – are ignored far too often. Compared with other children, they are at greater risk of malnutrition and death … of disadvantage by extreme poverty … of never seeing a doctor nor sitting in a classroom. In fact, of all children, they are the least likely ever to go to school. Of the 72 million children out of school today, as many as a third have a disability.
And children with disabilities are not only more vulnerable to discrimination; many are subject to outright segregation from society. Millions are living – unnecessarily – in institutions, often in conditions which can worsen and even cause developmental delays. Millions more are hidden away at home, making it even harder to reach them.
Children with disabilities are also more likely to suffer neglect, abuse and violence. And the hard, sad fact is that protection systems and monitoring mechanisms rarely address the special challenges children with disabilities face.
Or imagine the lives of girls, so often barred from the classroom and bound by social norms that violate their rights … endanger their health … and trample their dreams.
We know that educated girls are more likely to earn a fair wage as adults … to protect themselves against HIV … to have healthier children and to send those children to school. But still, more than half of the children out of school today are girls – a statistic that rises sharply at the secondary school level.
Uneducated girls are more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation – and they are also more likely to be forced into marriage before the onset of adulthood. If trends hold true, over the next decade, 100 million girls will be married as children. This in turn makes them far more vulnerable to the profound health risks of early pregnancy and childbirth – just as their babies are more vulnerable to complications associated with premature labour.
Or consider the life of any child, growing up in a poor community in a remote place where the nearest health clinic is a two-day walk or simply unaffordable … where school fees are beyond the reach of too many families and school teachers are in short supply… where the risk of dying before the age of five is far too high, and the chances of growing into a productive adult far too low.
What does the future hold for all these children… and for their societies? The answer should be: a great deal more. But this can only happen if all of us – governments, international organizations, civil societies, and communities – put reaching the hardest to reach children at the centre of national plans, policies and programmes.
For a long time – and still today – most development experts have believed that it is simply too expensive to focus on these forgotten children. This is no longer true.
New vaccines, innovations like SMS technology, micronutrients to prevent under-nutrition – all are improving our ability to reach these children in time to save their lives, and change their lives. And increasingly, we understand that this is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.
It is smart, because it is more effective – and more cost-effective.
When we met last year following the United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, UNICEF had just released a study which shows for the first time that the benefits of focusing on the poorest children and communities outweighs the additional costs of reaching them. For example, in low-income, high mortality countries, every additional dollar invested in reaching the most vulnerable children can avert up to 60% more child deaths than the current approach.
It is the smart thing to do also because investing in the social sector – education, health care, protection – is vital to both to the long-term growth and the future strength of societies. In fact, no society has ever become or remained strong without such investment. As the Secretary-General recently said, there can be no sustainable development unless there is equitable development.
And it is the smart thing to do because it is the approach best designed to protect the children who are most in need of protection. Children with disabilities. Girls. Children from indigenous communities. Migrant children. Children living through conflicts or catastrophes. And, always, children living in the poorest places.
We must do more.
For example, we have very little data on children with disabilities. This makes it harder to include them in policies and programmes – and to address the barriers that prevent them from realizing their rights. So we must do a better job of identifying these children and mapping the areas of greatest need… looking beyond national averages that conceal pockets of deprivation and widening disparities.
Similarly, protecting girls takes more than programmes to provide services – it often requires shifts in traditional practices and changes in behaviour. To achieve this, we need to invest more in community-based ways of overcoming cultural barriers and norms that exclude – and even endanger – girls.
In these, and all our efforts to defend the rights of the most vulnerable children, UNICEF’s partnership with the Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and for Violence Against Children, as well as with the Special Rapporteurs, is critical. I especially appreciate my professional and personal collaborations with Radhika Coomaraswamy and Marta Santos Pais. Working with other, independent voices within the UN makes each of us more effective, and all of us more successful.
And we must succeed. For at stake are the lives and futures of the children described in these reports, and so many more – and we must take steps now to protect them.
When it comes to children with disabilities, this means achieving full ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 105 countries have already done so, but we need to finish the job.
The report enumerates practical steps to do so, and we hope the General Assembly will encourage all Member States to adopt them.
When it comes to girls, it most urgently means banning the practice of forced marriage and child marriage once and for all. UNICEF applauds the work of Member States that are working to achieve this in their own countries, both legislatively and at the community level. This can change the lives of so many girls – and we hope many more governments will follow suit as soon as possible.
And when it comes to the most vulnerable children – those most in danger of violence, abuse, and exploitation – it means achieving universal ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We urge all those nations that have not yet done so to sign, ratify, and implement these critical protections banning the use of children in armed conflict and the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
Mr. President, each of the Secretary General’s reports represents an opportunity to lift the lives of all children – especially those in greatest need and at greatest risk. It is up to all of us to make the most of those opportunities, so we can help these children make the most of their lives.