New York - 12 December 2000
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The great inventor Thomas Edison, not a man to mince words, was once quoted as saying that "we don't know half of one-millionth of 1 per cent about anything."
Of course, Mr. Edison made his remark in the 1930s - and it is safe to say that in the intervening period, human knowledge and understanding have increased somewhat. We may even have broken the 1 percent mark.
Whatever the number, certainly one of the biggest light bulbs to go off above our heads concerns the world's children - and that is the realisation, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that what happens to children in the earliest years of their lives is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.
Why this should be so is the focus of The State of the World's Children 2001, the annual Report by the United Nations Children's Fund that I am very pleased to present to you today. In this, we are privileged to be joined by three noted child-rights proponents: Susan Sarandon, UNICEF Special Representative; Rob Reiner, chairman of the I Am Your Child Foundation; and Prof. Jacques Van Der Gaag, Dean of Economics at the University of Amsterdam. We are honoured by their presence - and you will be hearing from each of them shortly.
Ladies and Gentlemen, every year, some 129 million babies around the world begin an extraordinary developmental sprint - from defenceless new-borns to pro-active 3-year-olds. And every year, countless numbers of them are stopped in their tracks - deprived, in one way or another, of the love, care, nurturing, health, nutrition and safe environment that they need to grow, develop - and to learn.
The result? Some 11 million young children die every year from preventable causes; 170 million children are malnourished; over 100 million children never see the inside of a school; and 1 out of every 10 children have disabilities. And that is just a partial accounting of the human potential that we allow to be squandered.
The need to protect and nurture children in early childhood should merit the highest priority when governments make decisions about laws, policies, programmes and money. Yet, tragically, both for children and for countries, these are the years that receive the least attention.
The future of any nation is directly linked to the future of its children - and by investing in children and in the families that sustain them, a nation is ultimately investing in its own development. One hundred and ninety-one countries acknowledged as much when they ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is just two ratifications away from becoming history's first universally ratified human rights treaty.
Yet there is insufficient recognition of how much the future of the world's children is irretrievably bound up in the first three years of life.We now know, for example, that those first 36 months of a child's life are when neural connections in the brain are at a crucial stage, ready to be developed through social and physical interactions and enriched by good nutrition and health - or left to atrophy.
These are not just any neural cells - they are the connections that enable a child to perceive the world, to walk and talk, to remember experiences, learn skills, feel emotion, establish and maintain social relations and make decisions.
All of this has been confirmed by neuroscientists and others - and by the hands-on experience that UNICEF and its partners have amassed in working with children. It is an approach that includes a broader definition of care than what we have used in the past, one that encompasses the practices and actions not just of a child's mother or health-care worker, but the entirety of a child's world - his or her home and family, community, country and culture.
It includes the basic premise that caring for the child means supporting the crucial role of parents and families in ensuring the right of all children to grow up in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.
This includes caring for the mother, and caring about the conditions she faces at home and in society at large. For in societies where women have no voice, limited access to resources, little or no legal protection and no respect, optimal child development is impossible.
It also means supporting the role of men, who must be educated about these issues if we are to dispel the attitudes that create inequality and that reduce women and children to second-class citizens.
Early childhood care also means that UNICEF and its partners must continue to build on our decades of experience about what good care for children means: that they receive sound nutrition, beginning with the enormous benefits that are conferred by breastfeeding; that they have access to safe drinking water, uncontaminated food and unpolluted air. That they live where there is adequate sanitation and waste-disposal practices. That their environments be healthy and free of disease. And that they be protected from injury, with the time and space to play, to explore and to learn.
Early child care also means building on the last decade of invaluable information that we have amassed in promoting implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is knowledge that has been tested in the real world - about caring for, and empowering children by providing them with love and affection, and with environments in which they can explore and discover and learn skills that they can use throughout their lives.
Ladies and Gentlemen, providing all this would be a formidable challenge at any time. It is especially daunting now, when so many past advances for children are being undermined by poverty, armed conflict, and infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
That is why UNICEF is calling on governments to reduce the burden of external debt so that impoverished countries can invest in children instead of debt service; and why we are urging them to redirect resources within their national budgets for early childhood development programmes.
It is why the global community must work harder to end armed conflict, and ensure that resources are invested in children, not armaments. It is why we are calling on leaders at all levels to redouble their efforts to end discrimination against women.
And it is why we are asking governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, including corporations and the media industry, to join in waging an all-out battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
I want to take a moment here to say something about HIV and breastfeeding, which has been the focus of media reports in recent days. UNICEF strongly supports breastfeeding because it can save children's lives - at least 1.5 million a year - and because it is one of the best known ways to support early childhood development.
It is an established scientific fact that children who are exclusively breastfed for about six months - and who continue to breastfeed into their second year while receiving a diet of high-quality complementary foods - are receiving the best possible nourishment, as well as protection against a range of infections.
Moreover, breastfeeding is a safe alternative in countries where families must contend with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, illiteracy and poor health services. In such countries, infants who are not breastfed are six times more likely to die from disease than children who are breastfed.
But now we have come up against a dilemma. And it is that, for all of its benefits, breastfeeding is also one of the ways that an HIV-positive mother can transmit the AIDS virus to her child. HIV-positive women face about a 15 per cent chance of transmitting the virus to their infants through breastfeeding.
To avoid such transmission, these women need help in finding alternatives to breastfeeding - or to find ways to make breastfeeding safer.
That is just one of the ways in which UNICEF is playing a leading role in fighting mother-to-child transmission. We support prevention programmes in some 15 countries, offering voluntary and confidential testing for women and their partners; drug treatments that help reduce mother-to-child transmission; and advice and counseling about infant-feeding options and prenatal care, including information about breastfeeding.
UNICEF believes every effort should be made to encourage pregnant women to learn their HIV status, so that they can make informed decisions - including how best to feed their children.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a long road to travel. But early attention to the well-being of the world's children, especially in their earliest years, is the most direct route to assuring their future - and of all the generations to come.