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To the Organization of African Unity Pan-African Forum on the Future of Children

Imagen del UNICEF

Cairo - 27 May 2001

Mrs. Mubarak, Secretary-General Salim Salim, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Dear Children:

On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, let me begin by thanking the Government of Egypt, a UNICEF partner of long standing, for its hospitality and hard work in hosting this crucially important Conference.

Distinguished Delegates, the outcome of your deliberations will help inform and energise a 21st Century agenda for, and with, children - an agenda that the General Assembly will take up four months from now, at the Special Session on Children.

The Special Session will be the biggest and most momentous gathering on child rights since the World Summit for Children more than a decade ago. We have every hope that national leaders will use the occasion to lay the groundwork for a world that is truly fit for children - especially for the children of Africa, whose survival, protection, full development and participation are all matters of urgent global importance.

To be sure, we have seen real progress for children and their families in the years since the Summit and the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - progress made possible by governments, multilateral organisations and the work of countless others, including members of non-governmental groups and the private sector, community and grassroots groups, religious organisations - and children and young people themselves.

We have witnessed widespread declines in under-five mortality, thanks in large part to the role of oral rehydration therapy in cutting diarrhoeal deaths by half. And we have seen comparable reductions in vaccine-preventable child deaths - including huge strides toward the eradication of polio, thanks to a global partnership involving governments, UN agencies, non-governmental groups and other elements of civil society.

National immunisation campaigns in scores of African countries and around the world have facilitated the wide distribution of vitamin A supplements- and, after decades of precipitous decline, we have seen the life-sustaining practice of breastfeeding increase by a third in the 1990s. There has been dramatic progress in tackling iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the world's leading cause of mental retardation.

Worldwide, there are more children in school than ever before.

And thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, child protection issues are being systematically exposed, and action taken to overcome them - from hazardous and exploitative child labour and the trafficking and abuse of children, to children in armed conflict and other forms of violence, much of it gender-based.

Increasingly, issues relevant to children have been placed high on national and global political agendas. Numerous national constitutions now include explicit provisions on children. National and local election campaigns are often dominated by child-related issues. The General Assembly and the Security Council, for example, have acknowledged the centrality of the rights and well-being of children and women to the pursuit of international peace and security.

Indeed, the cause of children came of age at the Millennium Summit, which endorsed such specific goals as reductions in maternal and under-5 mortality, increases in primary school enrolment, and the imperative of mounting effective worldwide campaigns against HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major infectious diseases.

Yet, my Friends, for all this progress, we are still far from making good on the commitments to children that world leaders made a decade ago, especially in health, nutrition and education.

Over the last 10 years, child survival in Africa has not improved nearly as much as had been hoped - or as much as it could have, had there been commitments of adequate resources and political will.

Poverty and underdevelopment remain immense obstacles to child rights and well-being - and Africa is far from achieving the international development goals of reducing extreme poverty by half by the year 2015. In fact, the current trajectories of African economies indicate that it will take decades for them to make serious inroads.

Under-investment in basic health and social services, the effects of armed conflict, the crushing burden of external debt, the huge systemic obstacles in the way of achieving major progress in reducing child mortality, such as continuing gender discrimination and violence and declining trust in political structures - all are having profoundly negative effects on the well-being of children.

As the Millennium began, children under the age of five were still dying at the rate of more than 10 million a year from preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections - the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. An estimated 170 million of the world's children are malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that can last a lifetime; and 1 out of every 10 children have serious disabilities.

Malaria remains a major child killer. And in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the world faces a threat of terrifying resilience, whose consequences for children and their families are as potentially long-lasting as any war in history. Because of this disease, and the conspiracy of silence that has so long surrounded it, children are suffering and dying in ways and in numbers that no earlier generation could have imagined possible - and the worst destruction is occurring in much of sub-Saharan Africa, from the growing ranks of orphaned children to the undermining of already weakened systems of health, education, and governance.

Education is one of the keys to development. Yet over 100 million of the world's children, 60 per cent of them girls, are not in school - and by 2010, half of the world's out-of-school children will be in Africa. Africa's education systems are struggling to cope, but attendance rates are not rising fast enough - in part because of HIV/AIDS, which is killing teachers and school administrators as relentlessly as it is killing children.

At the same time, children in many parts of the world continue to be caught up in the unspeakable effects of armed conflict between States - and now, increasingly, within them - whether brutalised and exploited as child soldiers or sexual slaves, or suffering cruelly from the effects of anti-personnel land mines and the global trafficking in small arms.

Yet, my friends, for all of this, UNICEF is convinced that we now stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for reaching the remaining goals that were set at the World Summit for Children - and for mobilising a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.

It is an opportune moment because we know so much more about what we must do to ensure the rights of children and address their needs. And this includes the knowledge, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that the love, care and nurturing that children receive in their earliest years is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.

We know, too, that it is crucial to ensure that every girl and boy receives a primary education of good quality; and that every adolescent must be afforded ample opportunity to develop and to participate meaningfully in society.

Distinguished delegates, the future is in our hands as never before. The basic foundation of development is a healthy, well-educated populace - and investments in health, education and stability for Africa's children will be repaid many times over.

Increased resource provision for children is not only a moral and ethical imperative - it is highly cost-effective. Investing fully in children today, sustained over the long term, will ensure the well-being and productivity of future generations for decades to come.

Education is a lynchpin in these efforts - and greatly increased investments in education, as well as improvements in its quality, will be of immense benefit to the children of Africa, especially for girls. The internationally established goal of universal free primary education remains valid - and a well-crafted campaign involving a wide range of stakeholders is vital if this goal is to be achieved.

As so many in Africa already recognise, only education can put young women on a path to economic and social empowerment; help them make the most of their abilities; and provide a means for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality.

Ensuring quality education and basic literacy will also open the doors to information technology and the new economy - and prevent the "digital divide" from becoming a new gender divide.

We know from hard empirical evidence that girls who are educated generally have healthier and better-educated children; that they tend to have smaller families; and that that they are more likely to understand what they must do to protect themselves and their families against HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

Distinguished Delegates, HIV/AIDS is the single most serious threat to the survival of Africa's young - and thus to the continent's very future. Mother-to-child transmission is responsible for perhaps one quarter of AIDS-related deaths in Africa - and surveys have found shockingly high rates of HIV prevalence among teenagers, especially girls.

That is why we must pay special attention to changing the high-risk behaviour of young men and women - and engage young people themselves as the main agents for change.

Children and youth must be active participants in their societies, not only in combatting HIV/AIDS, but in all matters affecting their futures. Young people all over Africa are actively exploring ways and means of constructing alternatives to existing social orders - and we need to attend to their initiatives with care and sensitivity.

The constructive engagement of young people can transform the continent. But the misdirection of their energies into militarism and crime can only deepen social instability and crisis. That is why mechanisms must be found to address the neglect and misunderstanding that young people confront - and to promote their meaningful participation in the institutions of their communities and countries. The voices of children must be heard.

The African family is also a vital social asset, which has cushioned the continent's children against the worst of the adversities of recent decades. The African custom of caring for children from the extended family is a particularly important tradition that reflects the importance of child rights in African culture.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that the family is also the context in which many abuses of child rights take place, and that to address these abuses, we must look to ways of preventing domestic violence and discrimination within the family, especially against girls.

The rights of children can only be realised when there is peace. Yet armed conflict continues to violate the rights of children on a massive scale - from murder, rape and mutilation to forced recruitment, displacement, injury and malnourishment. Moreover, most of those who wage, legitimise and support wars continue to act with impunity. All this must end. The issue of child soldiers is thus a priority for UNICEF and other actors - and education is a key element, both in preventing recruitment and in helping to re-integrate former child soldiers into society.

Yet no one - not the United Nations and its agencies, not regional organisations, not governments or civil society groups - has done enough to halt the criminal sacrifice of children in war. The international community must address the plight of war-affected children and women with new urgency, using international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on armed conflict - and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which includes an absolute prohibition against recruitment of any child under the age of 18.

Distinguished Delegates, it is only through broad and committed partnerships that we will reach the remaining World Summit goals; tackle poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict; and establish a comprehensive agenda for children for the first 10 years of this new century.

That is why UNICEF has begun working with all our partners to help mobilise a Global Movement for Children - a worldwide campaign to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.

To succeed, the Global Movement will need to enlist not only established leaders, but people of influence representing every part of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and private enterprise to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.

President Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel have already assumed a direct and personal role in this effort, telling leaders from every walk of life that if we want a just, equitable and thriving world, we must invest in children now.

My Friends, each of us has the power to help make the world a better place for children - a place where every child can grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity. That is why we are asking the world to Say Yes for Children - by pledging support for 10 actions and principles that are needed to improve the lives and protect the rights of children and young people everywhere: To leave no child out, put children first, care for every child, fight HIV/AIDS, stop harming and exploiting children, listen to their opinions, educate every child, protect children from war, protect the earth for children - and fight poverty by investing in children.

Say Yes is about hope rather than despair. It is an opportunity for citizens everywhere to stand up and be counted - to remind the world not only that citizens have obligations to children, but that governments, corporations and civil society organisations of all kinds have obligations as well - and that those obligations must be met.

Distinguished Delegates, UNICEF has every expectation that heads of State and Government will appoint Personal Representatives to attend the final Preparatory Committee meeting that begins on June 11 - and that top national leaders will themselves come to the Special Session with specific commitments, including plans of action that involve civil society, especially children and young people themselves.

Your leadership is essential if we are to mobilise a global commitment to children for the first part of this new century - a commitment that UNICEF believes will spark a momentous shift in national investments to favour the survival, protection, full development and participation of all children.

I know that UNICEF can count on each of you.

Thank you.


 

 

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