An urgent call to leadership
Promises to keep
To tell the story of how well the cause of human rights was advanced over the course of the last century is not simple. An honest narrative would raise questions of what became of the promises made for children and women, or of those pledges for international peace and commitments to universal human rights.
Some of the most dramatic and compelling stories of our times are of the significant gains in social development when the ideals of human dignity, justice and equality became reality through the actions of governments, organizations and individuals. Millions of people who might have died from communicable diseases and preventable illnesses in the past 50 years were saved because of public health measures such as immunization, improved access to safe water and sanitation facilities, and mass information campaigns.
Hundreds of thousands of women are alive today because of well-spaced and healthy pregnancies. Many more women than before are emancipated from illiteracy, largely because of political commitments to educate girls, commitments that were followed by global campaigns and local reforms.
Millions of children, born of healthy mothers, well-nourished and immunized against childhood diseases, have survived, whereas others, born before the child survival and development revolution of the 1980s and its life-saving programmes, did not. Thousands of children and adolescents, boys and girls alike, are now in school rather than trapped in exploitative and hazardous labour, or living on the streets and train platforms, or being trafficked for prostitution.
But there are also sombre accounts of the 20th century about actions and inaction and times when not even the slightest shadow of the ideals of human rights could be seen. Clearly, not all have enjoyed the fruits of progress - and children and women especially have been denied.
Over the last 20 years, at the same time that the world economy increased exponentially, the number of people living in poverty grew to more than 1.2 billion, or one in every five persons, including more than 600 million children.1
In the last 15 years, denial and an unconscionable silence have allowed the HIV/AIDS pandemic to kill millions and decimate societies, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
And in the last 10 years, the rape of women and girls and the systematic slaughter of civilians, including children, have become conventional weapons of war in every region of the world where conflicts rage.
How can one era hold such disparate and conflicting realities? Why has progress been possible in some countries and not in others? And what distinguishes countries where the rights of women and children are protected and promoted from those where children and women languish in poverty because the commitment to their rights was a hollow promise?
Answers to these questions turn on the point of leadership. Where leadership for children and women is just, their rights can be protected. Where leadership is abdicated, abuses and human rights violations follow.
Even in countries at war, the commitment to immunize children has been honoured. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, National Immunization Days held since 1998 have reached 96 per cent of the children in more than two thirds of the country.
Similarly, young people across Africa and South-East Asia, like the teenage counsellors in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, have taken the initiative and volunteered in support groups to provide confidential counselling about HIV/AIDS in youth-friendly health services. And in many parts of the world, people are refusing to accept violence against women as inevitable, creating shelters and hotlines for women and raising awareness. In Bangladesh, young women have organized a movement that speaks out against the horror experienced by hundreds of the country's girls and women who are injured in brutal acid attacks by spurned suitors and hostile relatives every year.