State of the World's Children State of the World's Children

The world’s approach to children has changed dramatically, says The State of the World’s Children 1997. When UNICEF was created 50 years ago - on 11 December 1946, in the aftermath of the most devastating world war in history - it was out of concern that children would not be adequately protected in the overall relief effort under way in Europe. The international recognition that children required special attention was revolutionary at the time. At the end of the postwar reconstruction period, newly independent developing countries demanded that children’s growing minds and bodies be given specific consideration, and UNICEF’s relief mandate was enlarged to include child survival and development.

Now, the international approach to children has changed dramatically once again. The idea that children have special needs has given way to the conviction that children have rights, the same full spectrum of rights as adults: civil and political, social, cultural and economic. This belief was expressed as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into international law on 2 September 1990, nine months after its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly. The Convention has since been ratified by all countries except the Cook Islands, Oman, Somalia, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, making it the most widely ratified human rights convention in history. Ninety-six per cent of the world’s children now live in States that have ratified the Convention and are thus legally obligated to protect children’s rights.

This profound change is already beginning to have an impact. New laws have been passed and existing laws amended in numerous countries to conform to the Convention. In two striking examples of countries inspired by the Convention, Sierra Leone has demobilized child soldiers, and in Rwanda, children held in adult detention centres for alleged war offenses are being moved to special juvenile institutions, with UNICEF’s assistance. Major initiatives such as the World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in August 1996, and the International Conference on Child Labour, scheduled for October 1997 in Oslo, derive their impetus from the Convention.

UNICEF itself is at a turning-point. In its 50th year, the organization has adopted a mission statement that makes the Convention its guiding force. It will continue to work to alleviate the worst aspects of poverty for the world’s children - as more than 12.5 million children under five in developing countries continue to die each year, 9 million of them from causes for which inexpensive solutions have been routinely applied in the industrialized world for half a century. It will specifically pursue the year 2000 goals established at the World Summit for Children in 1990. Action towards these goals has already saved the lives of millions of children.

But by expressing and protecting all the rights of children, the Convention throws a clear shaft of light on paths that extend beyond the year 2000. Some of these will involve protecting children and youth in conflict with the criminal justice system. Others will aim to ensure the development of the young child, to support families, to end the use of land-mines and to try to bring about a more equitable distribution of resources.

The most vulnerable children in all societies, rich and poor, must have first call on resources and efforts. The attempt to touch their lives will be complex and will require a sustained attack on the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment. In a world where technology and knowledge are available and easy to share, and per capita income has tripled in the past quarter of a century, there can be no excuses: the rights of all children, including those who are most disadvantaged, can be fulfilled.

Good intentions will now have to be matched with political will. Redirecting just one quarter of the developing world’s military expenditure, for example, could provide enough additional resources to reach most of the goals for the year 2000. A similar shift in the targeting of development aid to basic social services - using 20 per cent of official development assistance - could generate much of the rest.

This kind of shift in the way the world uses its resources is no longer an appeal to the charity of those with the power and the purse-strings, but a matter of rights and obligations. Yet the new era in child rights will still need underpinning by popular pressure.

For the past 15 years, The State of the World’s Children report has mobilized public and political support for child survival and development. Unfortunately, the need for passionate advocacy on behalf of the world’s children has not diminished, even now, half a century after the need for UNICEF was internationally acknowledged. As Philip Alston, a leading child rights lawyer and activist, states: "In the final analysis, appropriate policies will be adopted...only in response to widespread and insistent public outrage."

Children at risk: Ending hazardous and exploitative child labour.

In Malaysia, children may work up to 17-hour days on rubber plantations, exposed to insect and snake bites. In the United Republic of Tanzania, they pick coffee, inhaling pesticides. In Portugal, children as young as 12 are subject to the heavy labour and myriad dangers of the construction industry.

Almost all of the rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child are contravened by these kinds of exploitative labour, says UNICEF in The State of the World’s Children 1997.

"Our lodestar must always be the best interests of the child," says the report. "It can never be in the best interests of a child to be exploited or to perform heavy and dangerous forms of work. No child should labour in hazardous and exploitative conditions, just as no child should die of preventable illnesses."

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