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Statement by Regional Director, UNICEF ROSA at the Launch SOWC Special Edition, Celebrating 20 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Geneva, November 2009

INTRO : This year is a moment in history for children unlike any other – the timeless convention of the Rights of the Child, the most ratified in human history, turns 20, tomorrow. a perfect time to reflect, indeed with 20/20 vision, on if this Convention has changed the world for children as was hoped back in 1989.

Sadly, the reason why I am here with you in Geneva today, and not for instance in Afghanistan or Pakistan in my region, is because there is little cause to celebrate (or the celebrations have been marred) right now in those two countries.

One of the most powerful symbols of freedom, and a right enshrined in the CRC, is the Right to Play. There can be no greater symbol of freedom than kite-flying – a much- loved tradition among all South Asian children, once banned in Afghanistan. To mark Peace Day in September this year, UNICEF Afghanistan held kite-flying competitions in the four corners of Afghanistan. The national winner was to be chosen this week. However, the security situation has deteriorated so much in Afghanistan that we have had to postpone the national kite-flying competition planned to coincide with the CRC celebrations.

There will be no kites flying for child rights today or tomorrow in Afghanistan.  This is simply not the time for celebrations in Afghanistan nor for its neighbour, Pakistan, where UNICEF has also had to curtail CRC celebrations. The humanitarian space in which we in the UN family are able to work has shrunk dramatically there too, and impinged on our ability to bring to life the CRC.

But let me stress first, that there have also been significant gains made since the CRC was ratified:

• In the 20 years since the landmark treaty, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, a new generation of South Asian children has a far greater chance than ever before of getting a birth certificate, of surviving beyond their fifth birthday, of being born healthier and of having greater access to education, safe water and better hygiene. Their mothers are less likely to die during childbirth in most countries, are more likely to be helped through their labour by skilled health practitioners at delivery and have a better chance of knowing what is right for their children.  Since the CRC was ratified there has been a significant decrease in child mortality of 38 percent down from 3.3million deaths in 1990 to 2.1 million deaths in 2008 – still unacceptably high but important progress all the same.

• Across the region, The CRC had a major influence in shaping legislative evolution in South Asia, helping to improve children’s rights.  Before 1989, no constitution in the region contained provisions in line with the CRC, now Nepal and Bhutan do. India has amended the constitution to ensure children aged 6-14 years have the right to a free education.  In Nepal the CRC has been referred to in the Supreme Court ruling enshrining the right to citizenship* “child-friendly laws”: Afghanistan, Pakistan (juvenile justice) Bangladesh (labour laws), Nepal  & Bhutan (constitutions contain provisions in line), India (education for all).  SAARC Decade on the rights of the Child – linked to Saarc MDGs.

• So – we’re on the right track --- and we must be because South Asia, matters to the world – it has the largest child population – some  615 million children and adolescents. Children make up around one-third of the region’s population, but they are be 100% of our future. (child pop: South East Asia 559m, sub-Saharan Africa 383m). 

• But there is massive progress to be made and if South Asia does not reach the MDGs, then the MDGs will not be met – the world needs South Asia and particularly India.

• The challenges in S. Asia are huge: 

• Nearly half of these 600 million children live in poverty. According to the recently revised poverty measure of 1.25 USD/day almost 300 million children live in extreme poverty in South Asia. The deprivations that children suffer today compromise their future – and ours.  The S. Asian contradiction --- strong economic growth, yet high level of disparities, discrimination and exclusion.

• 24 million children under five years old were not registered at birth in the region – the highest levels of unregistered births in the world (both in absolute numbers and percentages) birth registration is the very first and most important step in attaining all other rights. From this first right all other rights follow.

• Half of all children in S. Asia are malnourished and the world’s child brides are living in South Asia (64.5 million including 24.5 million in India) Although this is a clear breach of child rights and the CRC South Asian Governments are often reluctant to interfere in what are seen as family matters, like child marriage.

• An estimated 44 million children are involved in child labour in South Asia, but the true figure is probably much higher as informal sector and girls usually uncounted (12m India, 30 m Afghanistan, 13m Bangladesh, 31 Nepal, 8 m SL)

• The lack of progress for children in this region is due to an potent mix of poverty, discrimination, social exclusion, lack of investment (ie GDP does not favour, socio-political conflict and natural disasters. Viewed in the face of South Asia’s strong economic growth, this situation is deeply unjust. 

• Let me comment a bit more specifically on Afghanistan and Pakistan as they are very much in the news and are key countries in the region

• For children – Afghanistan quite simply the most dangerous place in the world to be born.  The latest statistic show that Afghanistan has the highest U5MR in the world 257/1,000 live births.  Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index 2009.

• School enrolment increased from less than one million children in 2001 to 6.14 million in 2008. Officially there in 2001 no girls were in school today 1.78 million girls are being educated. Although these are massive gains, due to the security situation in the country today, as well as attacks on girls schools and female teachers, these gains are being seriously eroded.

• In the first half of 2009 measles and polio coverage was of close to 80%.

• 70 percent of the population has no access to safe drinking water and only eight per cent of households have access to latrines. An estimated 7.4 million people, or 30 percent of the population are food-insecure, six million in rural areas

• Effective humanitarian response is hampered by continued lack of access due to insecurity. Humanitarian staff trying to provide crucial assistance to women and children is being attacked. Today less than 43 percent of the country is accessible for UN missions

• Polio cases have dropped from 1,100 cases in 1997 to 40 in 2006 by vaccinating 95 per cent of targeted children (32 million) at least four times a year.  But still exists
more than 28 million children under five are supplemented with vitamin A twice a year.

• Today more than half a million girls are enrolled in school. Additionally, in earthquake-affected areas 400,000 children (nine of out ten) are enrolled in government primary schools.

• A comprehensive Child Protection Bill drawn up is currently under government review. Once approved it will criminalize violence against children, raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12 years and ban corporal punishment.

• But:   One in ten children does not survive his/her fifth birthday with the majority of deaths due to diarrhea, pneumonia or vaccine-preventable diseases.

• Only one out of two children at primary school age [total 19 million] is enrolled in primary education and very high drop out rates (45% boys and 65% girls)

• Thirty per cent of children are chronically malnourished and lack safe water and household sanitation, especially in rural areas.

• About 3.6 million children under the age of 14 works, mostly in exploitative and hazardous labor.

• Just one in two Pakistani adults can read - or just a third of the Pakistani women.

• Massive displacement with Low levels of humanitarian access to previously conflict-hit areas hampers humanitarian  assistance to those most in need. To ensure evenhandedness in the distribution of assistance, support must be provided to returnees and those who continue to be displaced.

What’s needed across the region:
• While children are generally faring much better in countries the CRC was adopted, the lack of progress in achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals shows that the region still has a long way to go. Commitments must be put in practice.  Policy must become action.

• Govts must invest in children i—it is both a responsibility and an opportunity. It is a responsibility because freedom from poverty and undernutrition is a basic right of all children – independent from wealth, race or geographic location.  Yet investing in children is an incredible opportunity because children who receive proper nutrition, primary health care, education and protection will fully contribute our society’s development.

• We must do more for those children who have suffered conflicts across the region – There can be no better time than the 20th anniversary of the CRC Now is the moment to ensure that children in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka see a dividend of peace.

• Societies must work to rapidly change the status of women in South Asia. The intergenerational cycle of discrimination and rights violations must stop. Persistent, deliberate and destructive discrimination of against girls and women in South Asia leads to poor education for girls, early marriage, and high rates of maternal mortality. Girls of today are the women of tomorrow, the mothers of the future generation.

• Children’s rights are human rights - for everyone, everywhere, everyday. So when I think of children’s rights, I think of individuals like your son or daughter or niece or nephew - individuals whose rights are violated - and individuals who work to protect human rights.

• We can change the world we live in, if we chose to do so.  We can bridge these gross inequities, we can end such injustice. But change can be brought about only if we work together.




For every child
Health, Education, Equality, Protection