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UNICEF says world has not done enough for children

Monday, 13 December 1999: Despite the great strides that have been made for children over the course of the last century, the world enters a new millennium with many promises to its youngest citizens still unfulfilled, UNICEF said today. A lack of commitment by world leaders across the globe means that children continue to be killed, injured and exposed to abuse and exploitation in flagrant violation of their rights.

Speaking at the international launch of The State of the World's Children 2000, UNICEF's year-end survey, Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that, throughout the developing world, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and deep poverty are reversing gains made over the past century and endangering the survival, development and protection of millions of children. She noted that advances in science and technology have helped push polio to the brink of eradication and drastically reduced deaths caused by measles.



Audio clips: UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy (these require the RealPlayer, from Real Networks)

The message of The State of the World's Children (572 KB)

Reducing poverty's impact (596 KB)

Three crucial investments for children (497 KB)

"At the same time, a vacuum of leadership has allowed the merciless targeting of children and women in armed conflict, the frightening transformation of AIDS into the number one killer in Africa and a devastating free-fall in development assistance to the poorest nations," Bellamy said. "If we don't seize the start of the new millennium to solve the terrifying plight faced by our children, then we are guilty of contributing to their suffering and to the wholesale abuse of their rights. The choice is ours."

Bellamy observed that the social and technological changes that shaped the 20th century held great promise for improving the health and development of children. Smallpox was extinguished and immunisation against basic childhood diseases offered hope to hundreds of millions of children. Iodine supplements became widespread, eliminating a major cause of mental retardation. Basic education was extended to the majority of the planet's children. Millions of children were freed from the yoke of harsh labour. And in 1989, the world recognised that children had basic rights and embodied them in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely-adopted human rights instrument in history.

But the report notes that ambitious commitments made to children by the world's governments at the start of the 1990's have not been fulfilled, due largely to a lack of leadership. This failure has magnified the impact of entirely preventable calamities, including:

  • HIV/AIDS: In Africa, HIV/AIDS has become a full-blown pandemic while also threatening the lives of young people in southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world. Five young people are infected by HIV each minute. By the end of 2000, a total of 13 million children will have will have lost their mother or both parents to the AIDS pandemic. More than 11 million young persons - aged 15 to 24 - now live with HIV.
  • Conflict and violence: During the 1990s, armed conflicts, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters have engulfed hundreds of thousands of the world's children. Children have been displaced within their own countries or made refugees in the wake of armed conflicts. Ongoing humanitarian emergencies presently grip 56 of the countries where UNICEF is working.
  • Poverty: Despite unprecedented wealth in the global economy -- world currency markets exchange $1.5 trillion each day -- more than 1.2 billion people in the world struggle to survive on less than $1 a day - and more than 600 million of them are children. Per capita income, adjusted for inflation, is lower today in 80 countries than it was a decade ago. By contrast, income in wealthy countries is 74 times that found in the poorest nations.

Children fortunate enough to escape the grim reality of poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS still cannot escape violations of their basic rights because public health, social services and education suffer from a lack of adequate investment.

For example, while the number of under-five deaths continues to decline in developing countries as a whole, children's health in sub-Saharan Africa is still under severe threat. Some 4.1 million children in the region under the age of five died last year, compared to 3.3 million in 1980.

In 25 countries - all but one of them in Africa -- a child born today will not live to be 50, while a baby born in the wealthiest countries has an average life expectancy of 78 years. And 130 million children in the developing world do not have access to basic primary education, 60 per cent of them girls. In 30 countries half of the population over age15 cannot read or write. In 29 countries, less than 15 per cent of girls attend secondary school.

Bellamy announced a three-pronged new agenda to tackle the major challenges facing children as they enter the 21st century, which combines early childhood care and development, basic education and a renewed focus on adolescents.

"The world has the resources and experience to know what works for children. The time has come for us to put our words into action. If we do, we can make significant changes for children within a single generation," Bellamy said.

She said that commitment by the governments of Thailand and Uganda had created AIDS programs with UNICEF support that have become the prototypes for a vast expansion of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. And in 29 nations, UNICEF has helped support efforts to provide educational opportunities for working children who do not attend school. There are now some 130 million children not in school in the developing world and an estimated 250 million working children aged between five and 14 years.

"If the rights of all are truly honoured," she said, "a generation from now, prosperity will not be limited to today's wealthy, HIV/AIDS will be in retreat everywhere, and the cruel, protracted violence of armed conflicts will gradually vanish from the world's political horizon. Children who would otherwise remain in danger will then be free to grow and play and learn -- secure and in good health. Why? Because, finally, the world honoured its obligations to its children and said the only world worth having is fair and just toward all."

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