Carol Bellamy addresses the 2nd World Youth Congress
Your Royal Highness, Crown Prince Moulay Rashid; Excellencies; Members of the Cabinet and other Distinguished Representatives of the Government of Morocco – and the 1,000 young people’s representatives whose hopes for a just and peaceful world are at the heart of this global meeting:
Your Royal Highness, the well being of our children and young people is the most universally cherished aspiration of humankind. Indeed, it is a unifying force, for in providing the love and nurturing and protection that are vital to the survival and development of every child, we are also engaged in what enriches and sustains us as human beings. The proof is in this very room, in the outpouring of young delegates and the rich diversity of ideas and cultural heritage that each of you represent.
To the young people who are here in force, I say: Your strong presence is an affirmation of the promise of last year’s UN General Assembly Special Session on Children, when world leaders forged a universal consensus to fulfil the overarching goal of the landmark 1990 World Summit for Children – to give every child a better future.
The 21-goal plan that the Special Session put forward will ensure the right of every child to health and nutrition, to a basic education of good quality, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other preventable causes of child mortality; and to protect children from abuse, exploitation and all forms of violence.
In fulfilling these goals, we will lay the foundation for A World Fit for Children.
Strategic partnerships are at the heart of that work, as we learned in the 1990s, when the best-known gains for children, such as the vast child immunisation drive that has driven polio to the brink of eradication, grew out of collaborations encompassing the entire spectrum of society.
From governments and multilateral entities to non-governmental organisations like Peace Child International and the Moroccan Youth Forum, religious groups and business and private enterprise, people’s movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families and children themselves – all have a role to play.
To you young delegates, who represent the yearnings of hundreds of millions of others to grow to adulthood in peace, health and dignity, I say: Never doubt the faith that your elders have in you. For we know full well that you and your contemporaries are an immeasurably rich resource in the drive to build A World Fit for Children.
His Majesty, Mohammed VI, King of Morocco and patron of this Youth Congress, explains it best: The immense vitality of young people, he has observed, finds expression in their ‘strong yearning for peace, justice and solidarity.”
For all those reasons, His Majesty has written, governments have much to gain by involving young people more often and more closely in the decisions they make and the actions they take in seeking a more just and prosperous world.
Indeed, the international community has acknowledged that the well being of the world’s children is inseparably linked to the overriding mission of the United Nations: achieving the Millennium Development Goals that are aimed at protecting the earth’s resources while helping the peoples of the world secure freedom from fear and freedom from want.
Both the UN Millennium Summit and the General Assembly Special Session on Children affirmed the centrality of young people’s participation in development when they endorsed previously agreed-to targets on child poverty, education and health, including the goal of halving the proportion of people living in abject poverty by 2015.
Education, especially for girls, is a lynchpin of that effort.
Distinguished Delegates, every year a girl is in school is a step toward eliminating poverty, advancing sustainable human development, and stopping the spread and mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS
Accelerating efforts to promote girls’ education will generate a strong force for social transformation, addressing issues of exclusion and discrimination while advancing tolerance, equality and mutual respect.
Yet it remains a global scandal that nearly 120 million children of school age are not in class – and most of them are girls.
The economic benefits of investing in children have been extensively documented. Investing fully in children today will ensure the well being and productivity of future generations for decades to come. By contrast, the physical, emotional and intellectual impairment that poverty inflicts on children can mean a lifetime of suffering and want – and a legacy of poverty for the next generation.
One hundred and ninety-one countries acknowledged as much when they ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which commits States Parties to take all appropriate measures, using all available resources, to ensure the survival, protection, and full development of every child.
Because of the CRC, children are now higher on the public and political agenda than ever before – and there is widespread recognition that every child has a fundamental right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential – to express their opinions freely – and to participate in decisions that affect their future.
Such decisions are frequently matters of life and death. For example, the right of young people to participate in health and development decisions is central to preventing a whole range of immediate threats like HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and violence, as well as to combating a host of later problems that can threaten not only their lives, but their children’s.
The crucial nature of their participation is highlighted in the 1990 World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children, where leaders stressed that “among the partnerships we seek, we turn especially to children” – and appealed to them to participate in generating the political action necessary to ensure the rights and well-being of all children.
Well over a decade later, the potential impact of that participation has grown. Rapid advances in information technology have given young people the means to participate and express their views not just within the home and their community, but across the globe – to other young people, to the media, to governments and to other leaders everywhere.
Last May’s Special Session of the General Assembly, the first devoted solely to the plight of the world’s children, was a turning point in the drive to regularise the participation of young people in high-level global proceedings.
The unprecedented invitation to children to participate as fully accredited delegates resulted in a throng of nearly 400 delegates under the age of 18 or just past it – several of whom would make additional history by addressing the General Assembly.
It was, as one young delegate observed wryly, the first time in the history of the UN that children were not only seen, but heard. The young delegates made good use of their elevated status, questioning their adult counterparts forcefully. Had we done enough for children? Would we truly keep our promises? And in fact, their impact was unmistakable – for in pushing us to reflect on our rhetoric and promises for action, they made the Special Session that much more relevant and responsive.
But in the afterglow of the three-day event, many children expressed the view that it was not enough that their voices had been heard, even at such lofty levels. I cannot agree more.
Young people must be free to move beyond the novelty of publicly speaking truth to power to a more enduring and clearly defined role – empowerment as full-fledged partners in development.
At UNICEF, we have found that participation at one level often tends to carry over into others. UNICEF programming is aimed at promoting the idea that meaningful participation is not confined to high-level conferences, but can yield benefits in places where children and young people spend much of their time, such as the home, school, or community facility, and where decisions developed in collaboration with adults can have a direct and immediate impact.
These in turn can help generate the establishment of such institutions as student councils, girls clubs, or national youth parliaments, which can lead to participation on regional or even national levels, such as young people who become involved in national responses to World Fit for Children follow-up responses.
The question of how young people can best support the United Nations has stirred considerable attention in recent months. His Majesty, the King of Morocco, has suggested that there may be a possible role for young people in helping to implement the Millennium Development Goals in tandem with implementing the World Fit for Children objectives. UNICEF looks forward to hearing all sides of the issue, which is to be discussed at the Youth Congress this week.
Your Royal Highness, adolescence is a period of enormous transition in a child’s life in terms of physical and psycho-social development – but by the same token, it is also a period when children themselves become a potential force for great change within their families and communities.
Our experience in the field has shown the remarkable extent to which participating adolescents are a positive force for needed social change
The examples are everywhere, from the Children’s Movement for Peace in Colombia to young people’s contributions to ending apartheid in South Africa – and the courageous boys and girls in places like Rwanda who have taken the reins of family responsibility and are raising their younger siblings amid war, AIDS and other disasters that have deprived them of parents. Yet many societies tend not to count these contributions, and social policies make no provisions to support the children who do this.
Yet it is clear that the future course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic lies in the hands of young people – and that is why it is absolutely vital that we do everything necessary to ensure their right to health services and nutrition, to a safe and supportive environment free of exploitation and abuse – and to participate and to make their views heard.
UNICEF and its development partners have already developed clear programming principles based on the importance of placing young people and their concerns at the centre of the battle against HIV/AIDS – beginning with the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Indeed, UNICEF offices around the world, from the Philippines to Uganda, are increasingly involving young people in their overall assessments of conditions for children, which are carried out prior to developing five-year action plans with Governments.
This is an important innovation, not only because it involves young people in the action phases of UNICEF programmes, through peer education, for example – but because it allows children to contribute to the development and monitoring of the programmes themselves.
These and other experiences over the last decade have taught us many lessons.
We have learned the importance of focusing on adolescent development, which increases adolescents’ resiliency and helps them protect themselves against such specific problems as the use of harmful drugs, including alcohol and tobacco; violence and accidents; and poor nutrition and poor health, both physical and psychological.
We also understand the urgent need to confront underlying issues, such as gender inequalities, societal values and norms – and the importance of developing national capacity to support adolescents as parents and caregivers. And we know that we must address the rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. It is now well established that the children of children are particularly vulnerable, and that once children become parents many of their rights are unlikely to be met.
Your Royal Highness, using the participatory power of young people to its fullest will require far more commitment and resources than we have yet seen – from governments, donors, and civil society, including non-governmental groups, communities and families.
It will require new and expanded partnerships, especially with the private sector, whose enlightened self-interest could serve young people while promoting private enterprise; and through innovative uses of new technologies that can help fulfil the right of young people to information and participation.
But in the final analysis, it is up to governments to show real leadership – and to produce the financial resources necessary to help launch effective programmes to promote participation. Through its sponsorship of the Youth Congress – and its efforts to throw a spotlight on the central importance of young people’s participation – the Government of Morocco has shown the world the kind of enlightened leadership that the situation demands.
To you, Your Royal Highness, and to all participants in this vitally important Youth Congress – especially the young ones – I wish you every success in your work here in Casablanca. Thank you.