AMMAN, 17 November 2019 – “Good morning everybody. It is great to have you all here and have this opportunity to be with you all for this first press encounter as the Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa for UNICEF.
It is a special day that we are celebrating today. It is a major milestone for children's rights. It is about 30 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted on 20th November 1989. And it is really an opportunity 30 years on, to celebrate both the progress that has been made, but also to highlight some challenges.
Let me first start by speaking about progress because in this region we always think about crisis and think about conflicts. But we do not speak enough about progress. Every country in Middle East and North Africa has ratified the Convention on the Rights the Child, so has turned it from international law into national law. That is a very important step forward in applying the provisions of the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child].
Overall in this region, we have seen some very significant progress with children and I would like to highlight a few areas where the region has done quite well, despite the fact there are issues with governance, conflicts and climate change.
In this region, we have almost universal vaccination coverage, we have good health care, we have quite good water treatment and sanitation. This has resulted in a more than two thirds decrease in child mortality rate. So, in 1990, 65 children out of every 1,000 children born died before the age of 5. Now that number is less than 21. So, we actually exceeded the global goal when it comes to under five mortality reduction. Second, we have more children in school today than ever before in history.
Third, even though the Middle East is known as a water-scarce region, where there isn’t a lot of water, the population has access to safe drinking water as well as to sanitation. So, over to 90 per cent of our children have access to clean drinking water despite of some of challenges with water.
And then, we have a young population that is full of potential; we have a population that is young and that is an opportunity for the region.
So those are some areas of progress. Now despite this progress there are definitely challenges. And I would say that one key challenge is the fact that this progress has been uneven. If you break away from the average of the region, you will see many differences within the region, or even within countries or between the different classes within a society.
And what we see consistently in the region, is that children from the poorest quintile, the poorest 20 per cent of society do a lot worse than children from the richest 20 per cent. That is not unique to the Middle East and North Africa, but we have some significant disparities in this region.
The second issue is that when it comes to the education, while children are in school, the quality of what they learn is not always very good or very relevant. So only half of the children in school meet internationally recognized benchmarks when it comes to learning. So, the issue of quality of learning is pressing.
The third challenge in the region is the fact that we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. So, young people are not finding jobs. They are educated, but they cannot find the jobs that they would like to find.
Another important issue that we are not necessarily discussing in this region is the whole issue of violence, and I am not speaking about violence due to conflict. If you look at children in this region – again, this is not unique to this region – four out of five children are experiencing some form of physical or psychological violence. And that violence is primarily at home or at school. It is domestic violence, corporal punishment, it is bullying, it is online violence. So, we need to understand that violence is a broader phenomenon than originally anticipated
UNICEF has done a survey which shows that some people and children in this region are worried that while we have made good progress, they are worried about the last three years. They are not sure that they can answer the question “are you living better now than you were three years ago” positively.
So I think that we are at a point where we have to hold these children’s rights, respect them and take them forward.
Of course, in the midst of all this progress and challenges, we do have the issue of conflict. There are 175 million children in the region below the age of 18, and of those 175 million, 25 million children are living in conflict countries.
It is high number of children living in conflict countries. And they of course have very special needs. Three quarters of the children who need humanitarian assistance in this region come from these conflict countries. And the conflicts specifically in Syria and Iraq have left tens of thousands of children who were previously in areas held by armed groups with a high degree of vulnerability, psycho-social support needs, and needs for re-integration.
Let me speak for a moment about these children in particular. So again, the picture is 175 million children in the region; 25 million overall living in conflict-affected countries. Then there is the smaller group of children who were living in areas held by different armed groups that have seen active fighting.
Within that caseload, there are children whose families were in areas previously held by armed groups, they themselves may have been associated with those armed groups. But they are children too and they need to be taken care of.
Currently in Syria for example, there are 28,000 children from more than 60 different countries, including 20,000 Iraqi children, who remain in northern Syria, many in displacement camps and some are in detention.
More than 80 per cent of these children are under the age of twelve and half are under the age of five. They are there because their families were there – it is not a choice they made. For these children we really urge that detention should be the last resort and only for something they have done, not because their families have ties to any armed groups.
We urge that there be opportunities to re-integrate them into their society, whether they are from Iraq, Syria or any of the foreign countries that they came from. We urge that they not be rendered stateless, so that they have access to the necessary documentation including a birth certificate and a nationality that they have a right to.
We urge that we be able to reach them with humanitarian assistance, with the kind of support that they need as children. The main point is trying to get them back into a family environment or a community environment wherever they come from. If there is a need to look at juvenile justice procedures for things that they themselves have done, then to use the appropriate juvenile justice procedures in their countries of origin.
Let me then go back to a slightly optimistic message to finish.
This is the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the most universally ratified convention in the world - except for one country - and all have signed it. It is really an opportunity for all governments, the private sector and civil society to see how they can advance child rights.
What our children and young people are asking for is good education, clean water, electricity, clean cities and villages. They are worried about the climate change that is occurring and asking us to take responsibility to address climate change. They are also asking for security, safety and protection from violence. They are also asking for jobs and for their voices to be heard, they want to participate in the development of the nation. They are asking for freedom from abuse and exploitation. Most of all, they are asking for dignity of life for themselves and for their families – karama in Arabic. They are asking for things that all of us want for our children. We should work together to make sure that every child has these things for them.
The media and press have a key role to play because you can highlight these challenges and focus on the solutions that are so important to help move things forward.
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.
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