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Twentieth Anniversary of the CRC by Martin Mogwanja

© UNICEF/Pak2009/Offcial Portrait
Mr. Martin Mogawanja, UNICEF Representative in Pakistan

By Martin Mogwanja

On 20 November 2009, it will be twenty years since the countries of the world, including Pakistan, came to a historic decision and recognised, for the first time in human history, that children have special rights and needs. The members of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Pakistan ratified it a year later, on 12 December 1990.

Ratifying the CRC was a major achievement. It is a pledge that children have the right to survive and develop, the right to be protected from exploitation and abuse, and the right to be respected as thinking, feeling beings. Only if we, the adults of the world and particularly of Pakistan, understand these rights and try to implement them through our laws, our social and communal customs and our daily behaviour, can we hope to create a better future without poverty, violence, injustice and deprivation of children. At UNICEF, this vision of the future is called “a world fit for children”. By working together, such a world lies within our reach.

Today, twenty years later is an appropriate day to assess where we stand in implementing the principles of the CRC in Pakistan. In 1990, out of every 1,000 children, 132 died before reaching five years of age. Most of them – 102 – died aged less than a year. Today, matters have improved considerably. Now, the under-five mortality rate is 90 deaths per 1,000 births, and amongst children under one it is 73. By improving health systems, providing vaccinations and making sure more mothers know how to care for their children, mortality rates of children under five years of age have been cut by a third.

Nevertheless, Pakistan continues to have an unacceptably high rate of death amongst the youngest children. It is high even compared to the rest of South Asia. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, had a neonatal mortality rate of 36 per 1000 live births by 2007 – far lower than Pakistan’s 53 per 1000 live births in same year.

Malnutrition underlies about 35 per cent of the deaths of children under five years of age. If children are underweight, they have a 68 per cent higher chance of dying in their first year – and in  Pakistan, more than a third, 38 per cent of children under five, are underweight. A major factor is that due to lack of knowledge and poor nutrition for themselves, mothers do not feed their children exclusively on breastmilk for the first six months of life. Pakistani children also lack important micro-nutrients. Only 17 per cent of households use iodised salt. According to a recently published UNICEF global report, for every dollar spent on Vitamin A and zinc supplements for children, children gain back more than US$ 17 back in terms of health benefits. Investing in nutrition is thus an investment in the future and the dividends will be immense.

It is universally recognised and an intrinsic part of Islamic teaching that education is essential for children, whether they are boys or girls. If a person is educated at least up to primary school, he or she has the tools needed to make decisions in their daily life. There are possibilities of better jobs. Education gives one confidence in navigating the world, using public services, and avoiding exploitation. Educated mothers can make informed decisions about how best to take care of their children and ensure that their children in turn grow up to be healthy, empowered individuals.

Over the past years, Pakistan has made great progress in bringing children to school and ensuring that they get a good education. Today, 77 per cent of boys of appropriate age are enrolled in primary school. Amongst girls, however, the figure is much lower, at 59 per cent. Worryingly, most enrolled children live in Punjab Province or major urban areas such as Karachi. By comparison, in FATA, only 28 per cent of children are enrolled with only 17 per cent of girls. These imbalances must be rectified if we are to achieve education for all children in Pakistan.

Alongside the task of bringing children to school is the need to ensure that they receive quality education. This means trained and motivated teachers, and schools in good repair with working sanitation facilities. It means that parents must understand the importance of sending their children to school and insisting that they complete their education. It also means that children must be encouraged to attend school and not frightened away by corporal punishment that is common. According to a 2007 survey conducted in seven districts, 74 per cent of children reported punishment at schools, while 52 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls reported beatings. Data from the same survey indicates 75 per cent of children were physically abused at home.

Similarly, it is essential for all of us, no matter our role as parents, teachers, law enforcers or policy makers, to recognise that children need special protection from violence, abuse and exploitation.

There is no reliable and representative data on the different forms of child labor and the amplitude of the phenomenon. Anecdotal information suggests that the number of children working in harmful conditions has dramatically increased during the last few years due to economic and food crises. The findings of the assessments or situation analysis conducted among the IDPs in NWFP and FATA, during humanitarian crises have indicated that families use child labor as one of the main coping or surviving strategy. The number of children working on the streets in NWFP increased visibly.

Presently, there are at least 2,000 children languishing in jails where officials may mistreat them out of lack of understanding of the care children need. A 2007 survey in seven districts showed that 44 per cent of boys in jail were beaten, and 11 per cent were put in chains. According to the Pakistan Penal Code, children as young as 7 can be held criminally responsible, which means they may be held in detention and deprived of liberty.

To relieve a so-called “burden”, some families marry their girls young – 24 per cent of 18-year-old girls in Pakistan are already married, and 9 per cent are mothers by age 19. As insecurity and economic hardship affects Pakistan, we must be careful not to allow children to suffer.

Every parent and every institution in Pakistan has a responsibility to work together and protect children. At the government level, this means ensuring that laws and institutions take children’s needs into account and are implemented properly everywhere in the country. It means approving and implementing the National Child Protection Policy which is presently under consideration by the Cabinet and which will delineate the rights and needs of children.  While the State is accountable to implement the public policies, legislations, institutional and administrative frameworks to meet the child rights, on the individual level, we can be vigilant about how children are treated at home, at school, in the workplace and on the street, and being unafraid to speak out and tell fellow adults about the special needs of children.

The twentieth anniversary of the CRC is an occasion to celebrate our successes, but it is also a time to make a commitment. In Pakistan, we have already come a long way. Now, by working together, we have the chance to construct a new reality for children.  One in which Pakistani children born today come into a world where hunger and preventable diseases like polio or measles are a memory of the past. Where children are protected from exploitative adults, injustice and violence. Where they can grow up safe and empowered, able to go to school and build a better future for themselves and their country.

Martin Mogwanja is UNICEF Representative in Pakistan



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