The State of the World's Children 2000

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An urgent call to leadership

As the 21st century begins, the overwhelming majority of the people in the world who live in poverty are children and women. They are also the overwhelming majority of civilians who are killed and maimed in conflicts. They are the most vulnerable to infection with HIV/AIDS. Their rights, as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, are violated every day in numbers of such magnitude as to defy counting.

But the pall that these abuses of poverty, conflict, HIV/AIDS and gender discrimination have cast on lives around the globe can be lifted. The conditions are neither inevitable nor immutable. Nor is the international community about to abandon women and children to them. Government bodies and civil groups, organizations of the United Nations system and non-governmental organizations, philanthropies and responsible corporate citizens - as well as children and adolescents themselves - have formed alliances to redress these wrongs.    
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Two girls enjoy lunchtime at the Angela Landa primary school in Havana

Ready to take the necessary next step in advancing the well-being of the world's children, representatives of these various groups are to gather in an extraordinary meeting in the New York autumn of 2001, that will be linked to a Special Session of the General Assembly. Together, they will form a grand global coalition committed to fully meet the goals of the 1990 World Summit for Children. And they will begin the 21st century with a new agenda, clear and passionate about what needs to be done - for all women and all children - before the first decade of the new millennium ends.

Taken as a whole, these many organizations and the millions of people they represent - neither cowed nor intimidated by the challenges ahead - will form an unprecedented international movement on behalf of children. Many have worked long years to better the lives of children, adolescents and women: bringing the Convention on the Rights of the Child into being in 1989, setting goals and plans of action the following year at the World Summit, striving in the decade since then to be true to their promises. Others have embraced the cause of child rights more recently, drawn by a particular issue such as child soldiers, child labour or the trafficking of children for prostitution.   
The momentous social movement that is needed for children is too important - and the urgency too great - for it to be led by a traditional few.

Together, they share a belief that human progress and overall development lie in the progress of women and children and the realization of their rights. They are animated by what has already been accomplished: the proven child survival gains of the 1980s and 1990s, the tenets of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the law and spirit of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the achievements in nearing the World Summit goals.

Humanity has seen stunning advances and has made enormous strides for children, many of them in the last decade, many others in just over the span of a generation. Children's lives have been saved and their suffering prevented. Millions have grown healthier, been better nourished and had greater access to a quality education than ever before. Their rights as put forth in the Convention have been acknowledged and laws to protect them enacted and enforced.

Polio, once a global epidemic, is on the verge of eradication, and deaths from two remorseless child killers, measles and neonatal tetanus, have been reduced over the past 10 years by 85 per cent and more than 25 per cent, respectively. Some 12 million children are now free from the risk of mental retardation due to iodine deficiency. And blindness from vitamin A deficiency has been significantly reduced. More children are in school today than at any previous time.

Despite the many stunning steps forward, a number of the goals remain out of reach for hundreds of millions of children throughout the world. Their lives and futures are threatened in a world marked by deeper and more intractable poverty and greater inequality between the rich and poor, proliferating conflict and violence, the deadly spread of HIV/AIDS and the abiding issue of discrimination against women and girls.

These problems are not new, but they are more widespread and profoundly entrenched than they were even a decade ago. Interwoven and reinforcing, they feed off one another and abrogate the rights of children and women in compounding ways. In some countries and regions, they threaten to undo much of what has been accomplished.

Copyright© 1999 UNICEF/90-0003/Tolmie
In Colombia at the beginning of the decade, 3.5 million children under five years old were reached through a network of health clinics and the dissemination of health messages. A woman weighs a boy in a sling scale in her home.

Intergenerational patterns of poverty, violence and conflict, discrimination and disease are not unconquerable. They - like other challenges before them - can be met. What is more, given the resources that the world has at hand, these deadly cycles can be broken within a single generation.

The world must now direct its efforts towards those points where the potential for change and impact will be greatest: the best possible start for children in their early years, a quality basic education for every child and support and guidance for adolescents in navigating the sensitive transition to adulthood.

The State of the World's Children 2000 seeks to fan the flame that burned so brilliantly for children a decade ago. It is a call to leaders in industrialized and developing countries alike to reaffirm their commitment to children. It is a call for vision and leadership within families and communities, where the respect for the rights of children and women is first born and nurtured and where the protection of those rights begins.

And it is a call to all people to realize a new world within a single generation: a shared vision of children and women - indeed of humankind - freed from poverty and discrimination, freed from violence and disease.

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