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UNICEF Executive Director raises child health and child rights in Mali

Visits programme to address climate change in Timbuktu

NEW YORK, 9 November, 2009 - On a three day trip to Mali, UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman met with Government officials, visited health programs and went to the ancient town of Timbuktu to see first-hand the devastating impact of climate change on children.

In meetings with the President, Amadou Toumani Toure, and other officials she discussed cooperation between the Government and UNICEF to improve children's health and rights.

Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, is ranked one of the poorest in the world, with over half the population living under the poverty line.

“One in five children in Mali do not survive to see their fifth birthday,” said Veneman. “Most of these children are dying from preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, often exacerbated by under nutrition.  In Mali, 32% of children under 5 years old are under weight.”

The situation for mothers is equally as dire.  Women have a 1 in 15 lifetime risk of dying of maternal related causes.  This compares to 1 in 8,000 in the industrialized world.

“Lack of basic health services, malnutrition, and inadequate access to clean water and basic sanitation contribute to high rates of child and maternal mortality,” said Veneman.  "UNICEF and other partners are working closely with the Government to help improve conditions so that mothers and babies have a healthier start in life.”

In some areas, the Government has made significant progress. Programmes to combat malaria, which is one of the biggest killers of children in Mali, have been notably successful.  Mali has one of the highest rates of insecticide-treated bed-net coverage in Africa, with 78% of children under five currently sleeping under a bed-net.

In other areas, such as addressing harmful practices, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Veneman spoke out against traditional practices that violate the rights of young women and children.

“Child labor, early marriage and female-genital cutting are all common practices in this country,” said Veneman.  “Approximately 85% of all women and girls undergo genital cutting, which can lead to fatal hemorrhaging and other serious health issues.”

Around 71% of girls are married before age of 18.  An estimated 30%  are under age 15.  Poverty and ignorance, combined with deep rooted cultural beliefs, make addressing early marriage and female-genital cutting difficult, but Veneman insisted that progress is possible.

“The Government recognized that these practices are harmful to young girls,” said Veneman, “Education is the key to breaking these traditions that rob girls of their youth, their innocence and often their lives.”

Veneman also visited Timbuktu, otherwise known as ‘the mysterious city’ situated in the Sahel region of northern Mali.

Timbuktu has been severely impacted by climate change.  Branches of the Niger River have dried up due to drought and the much of the land is now arid and unable to yield crops.

She praised a food for work program in Timbuktu, supported by the World Food Programme, where women grow vegetables and rice on land that has been reclaimed from the advancing desert.  The women are also planting trees as part of a reforestation programme.

“These women are empowered to produce needed food while adapting to the impact of climate change,” said Veneman.  “As the Copenhagen Climate Change summit approaches, it is important to recognize that climate change is adversely affecting the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.” 

Also during the trip, Veneman and President Toure launched a month of activities commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Mali co-chaired the Committee that oversaw the finalization of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.  The Convention was the first legally binding document that outlined the human rights of children.

For further information, please contact:
Christopher de Bono, UNICEF NY,
Tel + 1 212 303 7984;
E-mail: cdebono@unicef.org




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