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Press centre


Changing the world with children: a 21st century agenda for human security.


New York - 4 March 2003

I am delighted to join you today - and honoured by this opportunity to address the Carnegie Council, which has long distinguished itself as the preeminent forum for exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of international affairs.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we meet at an ominous juncture in global affairs, poised on the knife-edge of war, amid rising worldwide demands for peace. And here on East 64th Street, we can ponder the irony that Andrew Carnegie founded this institution to help promote global peace in 1914 - a year that is now remembered mainly for its catastrophic disintegration of the old order in Europe, which we now know originated in a string of military miscalculations.

Eighty-nine years later, there are many questions and few reliable answers about the myriad consequences that might accrue from a 21st Century war in Iraq - but of one thing you may be certain: the children there, who already have one of the world's highest rates of under-5 mortality, will suffer even more.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, UNICEF and its partners are determined to protect as many vulnerable children as we can reach. Beginning just over a week ago, some 14,000 health workers have been labouring feverishly to immunise more than 4 million Iraqi children against polio - and to make sure that as many children as possible are also protected against measles.

And therein lies one of the stranger aspects of this period we are passing through: that the march toward war has also begun to focus public attention on an issue of compelling moral and ethical significance - and that is the issue of poverty and the future of the world's children.

Life is a gift. All of us know that. But for nearly 3 billion people - almost half of humanity - life is a nightmare. In a global economy worth well over $30 trillion, they live on less than $2 a day. And 1.3 billion of them exist at the very margins of subsistence, making do on less than $1 a day. More than half of them are children.

We use dollar terms to describe their plight. But if you have seen these people, as I regularly do, you will understand when I tell you that their lives are so dominated by suffering and want as to be literally indescribable. The most basic necessities of life are beyond them: things like clean water, adequate sanitation, nutritious food, basic health care, a basic education of good quality.

What does all this add up to? It adds up to the needless deaths of nearly 11 million children under the age of 5 who are struck down, year in and year out, by easily prevented or treatable ailments like measles, diarrhoea and neonatal tetanus. It adds up to 120 million children who are not in school, the majority of them girls - and to the fact that preventable complications in pregnancy and childbirth kill and disable more women and girls of child-bearing age than any other cause. And it adds up to the relentless spread of HIV/AIDS, often in tandem with the proliferation of armed conflict and instability.

There are those who argue that poverty and exclusion have always been with us and always will be. I would submit that the persistence of this level of poverty - and the grotesque inequality that underlies it - is on a scale unlike anything we have ever seen. And as we in the more affluent neighborhoods of the world are beginning to understand, poverty's effects include not only suffering, but rage.

That is why I would argue that we are at a moment in history where the exercise of responsible and enlightened leadership must begin with the recognition that poverty and ignorance threaten human security as surely as any weapon of mass destruction.

Ladies and Gentlemen, these are among the reasons why the conquest of poverty has become the overarching goal of the United Nations - and it starts with investing in children.

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. That is why no effort to reduce poverty can succeed without first ensuring the well being of children and the realisation of their rights.

Investing fully in children today will ensure the well being and productivity of future generations for decades to come - and UNICEF is convinced that quality basic education, particularly the education of girls, is an essential prerequisite of any global anti-poverty strategy.

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded us in We the Peoples, his Report to the Millennium Assembly, there can be no substantial or lasting reduction in global poverty - and thus no significant or sustainable transformation in societies - until girls receive the quality basic education they deserve.

Only education can put young women on a path to economic and social empowerment; help them make the most of their abilities; and provide a means for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality.
We know from hard empirical evidence that girls who are educated generally have healthier and better-educated children; that they are more likely to understand what they must do to protect themselves and their families against HIV/AIDS and other diseases; and that they tend to have smaller families.

Ensuring quality education and basic literacy will also open the doors to information technology and the new economy - and prevent what has been called the "digital divide" from becoming a new gender divide.

But girls' education is more than a cost-effective investment; more than an economic issue; more than a desirable aspiration that societies should try to provide. Education is the right of all children - and the obligation of all governments, its primacy proclaimed by agreements ranging from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It was for all these reasons that three years ago, the Secretary-General launched the UN Girls' Education Initiative, an unprecedented 10-year effort by UNICEF and 12 other UN entities designed to help governments meet their commitments to provide a quality primary education for girls everywhere.

A key objective of the Girls' Education Initiative is to close the gender gap in education by 2005 by mobilising partnerships involving governments, voluntary progressive groups and, above all, local communities, schools and families.

UNICEF is currently working with 25 countries in the hope that we can accelerate progress toward achieving gender parity in primary school enrolment by 2005, as agreed to world leaders who committed themselves to the UN-brokered Millennium Development Goals. Our haste grows out of the conviction that unless we act now, we will be consigning another generation of young girls to lives of poverty, injustice, illness and abuse.
But education for girls as well as boys will be of little use unless children are prepared to learn. There is a growing body of scientific evidence about how a child grows and develops during the first months and years - and it shows clearly that how a child is nurtured and cared for from birth onward has a profound bearing on that child's ability to learn and develop.

UNICEF has also amassed extensive practical knowledge about what good care for young children really means: that they be breastfed; that they have access to safe drinking water, 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 time and space to play, to explore, and to learn.

Caring for the child also means caring for the mother. For in societies where women have no voice, limited access to resources, no legal protection and no respect, optimal child development, much less survival, is next to 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.

On the other hand, just as children must be helped to be ready for school, it is essential that schools are made ready for children.

Ensuring that girls receive a quality education means more than providing classrooms, teachers and learning materials.

It means eliminating all forms of gender bias and discrimination in education systems and schools, in curricula and learning materials, in teaching and in learning processes. As one example, we must ensure that schools are located where girls can reach them safely and that every school has separate and functioning latrines for girls and boys
We must aim for socialisation of girls and boys in a culture of non-violence and respect for each other's rights, inherent dignity, and equality.
We must strengthen accelerated basic education and additional education opportunities for adolescent girls.

Above all, children must end up learning what they are meant to, and need, to learn. Schools must have practical ways to assess these results and report on them for all to see: parents and communities, as well as national governments.

Systems must provide relevant curricula and adequate learning materials for literacy, numeracy, and education on issues such as human rights, gender equality, health and nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and peace. These materials must be gender-sensitive and in languages that teachers and children can read and understand.

Yet all these measures may not help millions of girls assert their right to a quality basic education. In many parts of the world there are deep-rooted obstacles to educating girls. Cultural traditions and practices sometimes forbid it. Competing claims from families and communities sometimes mean that a girl is sent to work when she should be sent to school. And where politics sometimes forces communities to think they must chose between educating boys and educating girls, the choice is often made to educate boys - when the right answer is to educate both.

Moreover, the degrading effects of poverty often mean that educating the girls in the family is not even contemplated. Generally, when girls do not attend school it is not because their parents do not love or cherish them, but because families living in abject poverty need every available source of income. And it is girls who must look after their younger siblings while mothers earn family income.

In recent years, a proliferation of economic and humanitarian crises worldwide has also begun to threaten many hard-won gains in girls' education.

Economic restructuring and the increasing emphasis on the private sector has caused declines in educational opportunities, particularly for girls. The adverse impact of uncontrolled globalisation and of religious fundamentalism are all having negative impacts on girls' education.
Perhaps worst of all, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS is striking at children and women at an alarming rate - and it is simultaneously destroying the educational infrastructure of many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet a number of disparate countries, in different parts of the world, have given us outstanding demonstrations of how, despite all these obstacles, it is possible to make significant progress in the education of girls. Their example proves that we do not need new studies. We do not need new institutions. And we do not need impossible amounts of new resources.
During my tenure at UNICEF, I have been most deeply impressed by what I have seen happening "on the ground" - through work being carried out by parents and teachers, by village councils, by local authorities, by national governments, and by the bilateral and multilateral international community

In Afghanistan, I watched as 3,000 schools across that war-torn country reopened, and a million and a half children, boys as well as girls, streamed in, many for the first time in six years. It was UNICEF's largest logistical operation ever in support of education - and it succeeded because the interim government committed itself to a drive that mobilised teachers, registered children, readied school facilities and organised a curriculum and an entire educational structure virtually from scratch.

It was a stirring affirmation of hope and defiance, and the universal spirit behind it has only reinforced my conviction that the future remains in our hands as never before.

Fulfilling the global commitment to girls' education will require strong measures: strong national leadership, strong political commitment, generous financial support - and an all-out attack on poverty, inequality, discrimination and exclusion.

And it must also have the active support of all sectors and levels of society - families and communities, governments and funding agencies, service providers of all sectors, the media, the private sector, civil society - and girls themselves.

That is the universal commitment we seek. For we at UNICEF are convinced that each of us has the power to help build a world fit for children - and make it a place where every child can grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity.

Thank you.



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