UNICEF in South Asia
75 years of delivering for children
In 2021, UNICEF is commemorating the 75th anniversary of its creation in 1946. Over the decades since then, dramatic progress has been made in improving children’s lives, progress that has been made possible through strong collaboration between South Asian governments, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society.
In the past 25 years, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has more than halved.
In the past 20 years, the number of out-of-school children at primary level fell by 60 per cent.
Since 2000, the number of stunted children under 5 has fallen by more than one third.
More than 90 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water.
Make the world a better place. And if you fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.
However, this anniversary year is also a moment of reckoning, as the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and humanitarian disasters continue to exacerbate the risks faced by children and youth in the region. Children and young people are paying a terrible price, whether directly on their own lives and their families or on the vital health, education, protection and other services that sustain them.
COVID-19 has made our lives miserable and we are waiting for all of this to come to an end.
Bumbadia Sangeetaben Revabhai, 18, India
- An additional 228,000 children may have died in 2020 due to disruptions to health, immunization and nutrition services
- During the pandemic, child helplines reported an alarming upsurge in cases of violence and other forms of abuse against children.
- An additional 3.85 million children may have suffered from wasting in 2020 as deepening poverty put nutritious diets out of reach.
- More than 5.3 million children missed out or did not complete essential vaccinations in 2020 – nearly 2 million more than in the previous year
- The learning of some 434 million children has been disrupted by school closures.
- Globally, 100 million more children have fallen into poverty, a 10 per cent increase since 2019.
But the pandemic has also opened up new possibilities. Based on the lessons we have learned from the crisis, we have a unique opportunity to do things differently and build strong and adaptable health, education and protection systems that meet the needs of all children.
New opportunities opened up by the pandemic include:
- public health systems that have been strengthened through infrastructure introduced to better respond to COVID-19 – such as improved cold chain and oxygen infrastructure
- increased public conversations around mental health which are helping to spotlight needs and drive demand for more services
- increased recognition of the region’s deep digital divide and opportunities to bridge it.
Reigniting opportunities for children in South Asia
A Regional forum to place children at the heart of policy action in South Asia
I want a better life for the future generations of Afghan girls that walk in my footsteps. It’s a life we dreamed of having but will never have. A life of health, education, happiness, freedom and all the good things we deserve.
UNICEF has released a new regional report, “Reigniting Opportunities for Children in South Asia,” calling on countries in South Asia to urgently expand investments in the health, education, and protection of the region’s 600 million children as a means to counter the terrible losses children have sustained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters. The report also urges capitalizing on the new opportunities opened up by the pandemic which, if seized by Governments and their partners, can protect hard-won gains and ensure the most marginalized children are not left behind.
But the pandemic has also opened up new doors and presented us with lessons that – if capitalized on today by decision-makers – can prevent rollbacks for children and kick start recovery. Today, we have a unique opportunity to do things differently, and build strong and adaptable health, education and protection systems that meet the needs of all children.
The future of childhood in South Asia
We asked our Regional Goodwill Ambassador, children, young people and experts from South Asia to share their vision of the future of childhood in South Asia. This is what they had to say..
Dreams are never easy. Embrace your uniqueness and know you can achieve whatever you put your mind to, despite the barriers that come your way.
Our Future, Our Rights, Our Voices
Adolescents and young people in South Asia reimagine a better, more prosperous future for all
UNICEF asked nearly 500 young people in South Asia for their thoughts on climate change, gender, the digital divide, employability and skills. Their voices are captured in this UNICEF 75 regional “Youth Statement”.
We - the adolescents and young people of South Asia - have dreams and hopes of a better world.
We come from many different backgrounds and communities. From remote mountain villages, impoverished city slums, and fragile coastal communities. Many of us already have to work, others are in school, and some of us do both. Some of us have no chance to work or study. Many of us are survivors - of violence, of exploitation, of poverty, of discrimination. Some of us live with disabilities, and some belong to LGBTQI+ communities. And yet we are still helping to build a better world for the rest of us.
Many of us have felt the terrifying effects of climate change, especially those of us who live in poor, marginalized communities. Unpredictable and extreme weather is destroying our homes. Selfish, irresponsible behaviour is suffocating our planet. Yet we don’t sense any urgency from our leaders to address climate change. We feel we are being robbed of our dream to live in a cleaner, greener world.
That’s the case of Naureen, 17. She describes her country, Maldives, as a “paradise on earth”. She says: “We are famed for our white sandy beaches and our clear turquoise waters. However, global warming and sea level rise are eroding our islands to the size of a watermelon seed.”
Meanwhile, on the coast of Bangladesh, Tahera and her community are facing an acute shortage of drinking water. Every day, girls like her walk two hours to fetch water - time they would much rather spend studying. During the flood season, children like her wade to school, risking infection from waterborne diseases. She has witnessed lives being lost and families being displaced.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made our situation much worse. The jobs that fed our families, and the health services that saved our pregnant mothers and little sisters and brothers, are no longer there. Our schools have been closed, often for months at a time. Many of us may never return to school. Some of us are forced to work or are subjected to violence and abuse. Many girls among us are being pushed into early marriage against our will. We are suffering from isolation and our mental wellbeing is deteriorating.
Those of us living in rural areas and in impoverished communities are the worst affected. We want to continue learning online but our parents cannot always afford mobile devices or internet charges. For those of us who do manage to get online, unreliable, and slow networks make it hard for us to keep up with our classes.
The experience of Simran, from a tribal community in India, is not unusual. Passionate about learning, her family sold prized possessions to allow her to continue her education. But when learning went online during the pandemic, Simran and other marginalized girls began to fall behind, because families prioritized boys when it came to use of their precious digital devices.
Some of us need to work alongside learning. Anjali says: “For our brothers and sisters to be able to go to school, to afford medicine for our grandparents and to take care of our family, we have to work. Our situation will not improve without addressing the root problems that push us to work.”
These are not the only reasons so many of us will never achieve our dream of a quality job, stable income, and the chance to lead a decent life. Our education curricula do not give us the skills we need to get good jobs. Especially for those of us living in rural and marginalized areas, quality education, skills, vocational training and employment opportunities remain a distant dream.
The girls among us have it particularly rough. If we avoid the perils of child marriage, violence, or early pregnancy we may still be prevented from going to school. For the lucky ones who get to go to school and find jobs, prejudice and discrimination can still block us from making headway in our careers.
The path to success is even more fraught for those of us who suffer discrimination. Women, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities and marginalized communities all face prejudice in the workplace. As Jony, a non-binary youth, shared: “Too often, we don’t get credit for our knowledge and skills, and get rejected from jobs because they are not considered ‘appropriate’ for us.”
It is time for such discrimination to end. It is time for all of us to be able to go to school, build our skills and have dignified employment opportunities.
We fear for our future, yet we cling to hopes of a better one - a future where we can reach our full potential. We are survivors and we need you beside us. We look upon you all – our governments, our leaders, our carers, for support.
We are here today to urge you to do the following:
- Involve young boys and girls in revising the laws, policies and programmes that concern us. We want to be included in decision-making processes, to which we can bring valuable insights. For example, with our first-hand knowledge and experience, our ability to innovate and create new solutions, we can help develop policies that protect and uplift girls and boys who are forced to work.
- Invest in digital skills for youth and begin to bridge the digital divide. Help make digital devices more accessible and internet connectivity affordable and reliable, while ensuring the online experience is safe. Support our teachers to continue teaching us in all circumstances, including online.
- Develop education curricula fit for a greener and digital world. We need curricula that includes the skills needed for jobs in the digital world. Climate education should begin in primary school so that we have the knowledge and skills needed to take action and speak for our right to a healthy and safe environment.
- Support youth entrepreneurship and investments in green and sustainable innovations. We have brilliant minds among us who are excited about and committed to transforming the world we live in. Seed funds, incubation centres, and tax subsidies can help us get these innovations off the ground. Together, we can reach our goal of sustainable, cleaner, safer and healthier cities and villages.
- Lastly, vigorously enforce laws that combat discrimination against girls and women, people with disabilities, marginalized communities and LGBTQI+ youth. Disadvantaged groups deserve to feel protected and empowered to reclaim their rights to education, health, employment, equal pay and fair conditions at work.
With your action, we can transform the lives of young people in South Asia.
The time for that action is now.
Our generation needs to work together and demand action from our leaders. As a young person, I want to remind our leaders that the problems we are facing are not of our own making…Your inaction affects us the most.