As UNICEF turns 75, children’s rights face greatest global challenge in decades
Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF Representative
Exactly 75 years ago, UNICEF was founded following the Second World War, and the crisis it created for children globally. Our mandate to help children whose lives and futures were at risk soon progressed to advancing, fulfilling and protecting all the rights of all children. There has been much progress since, and children's rights are more widely understood now than ever in most parts of the world. Yet, this year’s anniversary occurs as COVID-19 has rolled back virtually every measure of progress for children globally, as demonstrated by the new global report UNICEF is unveiling today, Preventing A Lost Decade.
The report lays out some deeply troubling findings and reveals that threats to the rights of children have reached previously unseen levels. Globally, 100 million more children are now estimated to live in multi-dimensional poverty. More than 1.5 billion students were kept out of school at the pandemic’s peak. 13 per cent of adolescents are experiencing mental health problems worldwide. 50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this could soon rise by 9 million as a result of the ongoing crisis.
The Royal Government of Cambodia saved many lives thanks to its swift actions on COVID -19 prevention and vaccination. Unfortunately, the socio-economic impacts have taken a mounting toll on children: disrupting education, deteriorating nutrition, increasing poverty, and diminishing mental health. Without action, many children in Cambodia will see their futures permanently blighted, with devastating impacts on the country’s development.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. The worst consequences of the pandemic can be averted if children are put at the heart of the nation’s recovery. That’s going to require total commitment, increased investment and reinforced partnerships among the stakeholders at all levels: government, UN agencies, private sector, civil society, and communities themselves. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.
We can build on the experience of the past two years, as we worked together to respond to the crisis. From the moment COVID reached Cambodia's shores, UNICEF and other partners worked closely with key Ministries to prevent the spread of the virus, reaching 10 million Cambodians through promotion of COVID-safety behaviors and over half a million school children with hand hygiene supplies. With partners, we developed flexible Home Learning Packages to support continued at-home or in-classroom learning and delivered them to every Grade 1 and 2 student across Cambodia, while working towards safe school reopening. Together, we ensured infants received routine immunizations, even as we supported the government to roll out a robust COVID-19 vaccination campaign and built up cold chain capacities, much needed to store and deliver the vaccines. We jointly advanced social protection so children in poor families can receive lifeline support. COVID-19 cash transfers helped an estimated three million Cambodians maintain pre-pandemic food security and access to basic services. We boosted the mental health and wellbeing of over 1.3 million people who received supportive messages through social media platforms.
Now that the recovery is underway, we must make sure it is firmly steered towards a better future for children.
We need to invest in social protection which supports the resilience of the most vulnerable women and children, by providing cash transfers linked to social services and by promoting their inclusion within the country’s unfolding economic recovery. We must increase investment in the social sector’s budget, enhance the social service workforce and improve the quality of services to protect children, while each taking responsibility for preventing the risks they face, on and offline. We must end the pandemic by continuing to support vaccination and together, redouble our efforts to stop the spread of the virus. As pandemic-focused resources are freed up, we can work with renewed determination to reverse alarming rollbacks in child health and nutrition. We must build better education systems, making sure children return to school, get effective support to catch up and stay in school. We must also work together to become more resilient to future crises, including new approaches to tackle global problems such as climate change.
All these responses must build towards a more promising future for children and young people, and most importantly, must be built hand-in-hand with them.
A commitment to building a child-focused future is a commitment to building a better world for us all, and it will take all of us doing our part. Children have been through so much during COVID, losing irreplaceable years of their childhood. Now it’s up to us all to do what we can to turn the next 75 years into progress and hope for every child.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.