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UNICEF in Latin America and Caribbean looks ahead, behind at challenges

PANAMA CITY, 31 December 2007  – As 2007 comes to a close, UNICEF is looking back at the work achieved for children and preparing for the challenges and opportunities ahead in 2008 in the Latin America and Caribbean regions.

For UNICEF, 2007 was a milestone, marking the 18 th  anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Approved and ratified by all Latin American and Caribbean states, it marked a generation of young people who have grown up with their rights guaranteed, if not always provided. Still, the Convention remains the most widely ratified humanitarian instrument in history, and as such is the most efficient  tool to promote child rights: the right to survival and development, the right to a name, a nationality, to receive the care of a family and the right to play – a right that, in essence, ensures their right to a childhood.

An important step forward on the right to a name took place at a landmark meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay in August 2007, when governments from across Latin America joined for the first conference of its kind ever in the region. The “First Regional Conference on the Right to an Identity” gathered Latin American governments, civil society, international organizations and representatives of indigenous and afrodescendant communities, all of whom agreed to work together to achieve free, universal and appropriate birth registration for all girls and boys in the region by 2015.

In the year 2008 a similar conference will be prepared in the Caribbean.

2007 was also the year we reached a benchmark reduction in the mortality rate among children under five years of age. Between 1990 and 2006, preventable deaths were reduced by half in the region - from approximately 600,000 children to 300,000. Despite these advances we have to continue working hard in order to prevent even more deaths, and reach Millennium Development targets set for 2015.

Significant winds of change marked another important shift in the policy known as ‘mano dura’  – ‘strong arm’ policy aimed at dealing with  adolescents accused of violating the law. During the “Conference on Peace and the Prevention of Juvenile Violence” in Costa Rica in November, the Central American, Mexican and Dominican authorities recognized that their “strong arm” policies of recent years had not succeeded in curbing juvenile violence. In fact, the governments admitted that their repressive policies, aimed at containing adolescent crime, had instead created a prison-hardened category of ‘professional’ young criminals. These governments now acknowledge the need to pursue alternative policies which will contribute to the positive development of adolescents and youth, encourage their sense of citizenship, all the while ensuring public security.

Another satisfying and hopeful development in 2007 was the increased political focus on themes and public budgets related to children and adolescents.

The landscape and challenges in 2008 for UNICEF’s work on behalf of children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean is clear.

“An unmistakable priority for us is to shed light and statistics on the significant inequities and disparities that still plague this region,” says Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “At present, the worst forms of exclusion at local and municipal levels are hidden behind national averages. It is neither ethically or morally acceptable to have policies based on national averages. We must know and programme according to statistics gathered at municipal and provincial levels, since they will reflect a more accurate picture of the lives of families and children in the region and will be a more telling way of gauging how well we are meeting Millennium Development goals.”

According to Mr. Kastberg, some of the immediate challenges evident in 2008 include: 

  • On child survival, we must continue to focus on the critical period after a mother gives birth and an infants good start in life, to; ensure more public investment and support, diminish infant mortality, reduce chronic malnutrition, increase birth registration, increase breastfeeding, and better prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, while also providing HIV-positive mothers with treatment, which would allow them to live to see their children grow up.
  • In terms of survival during emergencies, preparedness before emergencies so as to cut down on the disastrous impact they have on families and towns must be improved, and faster emergency responses to avoid the loss of lives and livelihoods, which tend to affect women and children first, and disproportionately hurt the most disadvantaged communities must also be given a higher priority.
  • In a region where 80,000 young people die every year as a result of violence in the home, 2 million suffer commercial sexual exploitation and 6 million suffer severe abuse each year.  Follow up to the Secretary General’s study on violence is crucial and urgent.
  • In 2008, we want to see more funds dedicated to more programmes aimed at creating opportunities promoting adolescent development, building on the contribution adolescents can make. Specifically, we need to ensure that the 25 per cent to 30 per cent of adolescents and young people between 15 and 24 years of age, who are out of school or out of work, be better prepared to formally enter the working world.
  • An important element to achieving this would be to redefine the paradigm of basic education, meaning that the idea of basic education must go beyond primary school to include all education from pre-primary to secondary – and that it should be intercultural, of good quality and open to the different languages in the national cultural context. With 2008 being the international year of languages, it is timely to focus on that element of education. By providing a full and proper education, we can build a full and proper work force of young people.
  • With half the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean considered middle income countries, a true reflection of how well services are being delivered, and rights protected, at the local level is critical to monitoring the well being of children. In coordination with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, and other UN agencies, a challenge in 2008 would be to develop a reliable system to gather pertinent information from sub-national level, which would better reflect the social realities and disparities of this region.
  • On the political front some key intergovernmental meetings in the region offer important opportunities for advocacy and change, which could lead to the implementation of new strategies and improve the legal recognition of the rights of children and adolescents in Latin American and Caribbean, these include:  the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) meeting on childhood in March, 2008; the Annual Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Youth and Citizenship in Medellin, Columbia in June 2008; the Ibero American Summit in El Salvador on Youth and Development in October 2008.
  • In November of 2008, we have a chance to do some important work on decreasing racism, particularly the racism inflicted against indigenous and afrodescendants living in this region, by participating in a follow up conference to the conference which took place in Durban on racism.
  • In terms of the internal workings of the UN, we would hope the team of Regional Directors of the United Nations Development Group (UNDG), who presented their work in Geneva in 2007 to the United Nations Social and Economic Council, achieve advances in promoting policies to increase decent education and employment for the Latin American and Caribbean population, especially for adolescents and young people.
  • At UNICEF, we will need to redouble our efforts to encourage governments to translate their political promises into a greater and more equitable social investment, in part by disseminating information on public policies which demonstrate positive results for children in the region.
  • During the year 2008 we will advance as the United Nations, united in action for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, in the creation of a Regional Hub for United Nations agencies in Panama, with the aim of performing more efficiently and coherently for children in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We would hope the end result of such efforts would mean that by this time next year, we would see an important shift for and among young people,” said Mr. Kastberg. “That they would feel more confident of their role, their place and their rights in building the region – confident that change was happening with them and for them, and not at their expense.”

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For further information, please contact:

Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF TACRO regional office, wbelmonte@unicef.org




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