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UNICEF/97-0629/Lemoyne

A girl in Georgia covers her ears anticipating the cries of her brother who is about to be vaccinated.

Choices

Thus, the options before leaders who are striving to do what’s best for children and best for their country seem obvious:

Assure that every child, without exception, is registered at birth and starts life safe from violence, with adequate nutrition, clean water, proper sanitation, primary health care and cognitive and psychosocial stimulation OR fail their moral and legal obligations as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Support families and communities as they care for their young children OR abandon the hope that the next generation will be healthy enough and skilled enough to lead a country out of poverty and away from destructive disparities of income, education and opportunity.

Provide the monies necessary to ensure every child the best possible start in life during the early childhood years OR perpetuate the inequities that divide people, compromise their well-being and eventually destroy societies and countries.

Spend what’s needed now to assure that families have access to basic good-quality services they need for their young children OR spend more to fix problems later.

These alternatives, although clear-cut, are not always easy to see. Intergenerational cycles of poverty, disease, violence and discrimination are so entrenched in the ways that lives are lived and societies are organized that they seem permanently set in stone, with cycles of hope and change buried under layers of rock, far from sight and possibility.

But even when governments do recognize the value of better matching their investments with their opportunities,7 there is a practical problem that must be resolved. Early childhood services do not fall neatly into any one sector, as the needs and indivisible rights of the young child span the areas of health, nutrition, a safe environment and psychosocial and cognitive development. Systems are not always in place to keep an integrated, cross-sectoral approach running. As a result, a government’s responsibility to provide for children and support their families easily slips between the lines that divide ministries and departments. Seen as the responsibility of many, providing services for children under the age of three becomes the responsibility of no one.

Which is all the more reason that governments at all levels must make decisions and take action if the rights of the child are to be respected and the needs of a country are to be met. And so must others — civil society organizations, the corporate sector, religious organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), children and adolescents. Leaders from all parts of society must:

• Make the rights and well-being of children a priority,

• Create, find and reallocate the resources that are necessary to adequately fund early childhood care as the first essential step in ensuring the rights of the child, and

• Assign responsibility and accountability for ensuring that every child has the best possible start in life, as the fundamental prerequisite for healthy growth and development during school age and adolescence.

Until society’s leaders step up to these responsibilities, the children and adolescents of this world, and their parents and families, will be left to absorb the effects of poor public policy into their private lives, before passing them to the next generation. And as long as a nation allows its public policies and budget decisions to violate the rights of children and women, there is scant hope of changing the realities and futures of children or of achieving sustained development. Nor will humanity’s potential be fully realized.

Panel 1. Early brain development: A firestorm of creativity

 

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