Mexico City – 11 December 2002
Your Excellency, President Fox Quesada and Mrs. Sahagun de Fox; Members of the Cabinet; Angeles Mastretta; Ladies and Gentlemen – and all the young people who are with us today representing Mexico, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic.
I am immensely pleased that one of the paramount dates on the UNICEF calendar, the launch of our flagship progress report on child rights, is being celebrated here, in one of the great capitals of the Americas. It is especially fitting because leaders in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have shown, in deeds as well as words, that the dream of a just and peaceful world starts with children and the realisation of their rights.
Mr. President, if we are to uphold child rights by engaging broad sectors of society in debate and discussion; if we are to heal our divided, wounded, conflict-ridden societies by advancing the democratic ideals embodied in the Millennium Development Goals – if we are, in short, to build a world fit for children, we will succeed only if the voices of children and young people are heard – and they are heeded.
Why is this so? The State of the World’s Children Report offers three basic arguments. First: children are the key to sustainable human development. It is no coincidence that of the eight the Millennium Development Goals, six of them focus on children. Simply put, you cannot change the world without children. So if we are to take these goals seriously – and truly we must – then we must take child participation seriously.
Second: The global surveys conducted by UNICEF over the past three years, which reflect the views of more than 400 million children, make clear that many children lack confidence in their governments. This can not be viewed lightly. Governments are instituted among people to strive for the common good. But they require the good faith involvement of the citizenry to succeed. To cultivate this good faith involvement, we cannot wait for the magic age of 18. Children and young people must be given the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives and their futures. UNICEF firmly believes that through participation – whether at home, in school, or in the community – children learn to respect others, to express themselves constructively, to negotiate differences, to make responsible life choices, and to grow into informed, engaged, optimistic citizens.
Third, and perhaps most importantly: Children actually have something very special to offer. The are blessed with an inherent good will, with incredible creativity, and with an unspoiled sense of the possibilities of life. There is no reason why we should not tap into these special traits of childhood to help us find solutions to the challenges that face us.
But let’s be clear: The lion’s share of responsibility still rests with adults. We are obliged to seek out the perspectives and opinions of children and to treat them seriously; and to help children and young people develop the skills to make their participation authentic and meaningful.
It is the story of those obligations, and how they are best fulfilled, that is the focus of The State of the World’s Children 2003 that I am pleased to present to you today.
Child participation is a rapidly emerging area of understanding. It has grown out of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and its guarantee of the right to free expression and the right to participate in decisions affecting children’s well-being.
Here in Mexico, child participation achieved wide visibility in 1997, when the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and UNICEF organised elections in which over four million children cast ballots to decide which child rights were most important to them. The right to an education led the voting, followed by the right to a clean and sustainable environment, and the right to be free from violence.
In 2000. a couple of years later, IFE and some 60,000 volunteers from over 400 public and private organisations in Mexico organised a Children’s Consulta in which nearly 4 million child voters denounced violence and discrimination and called on adults to treat children with respect, and to create more space for social participation.
Many adults mistakenly assume that child participation means handing over their decision-making power to children who are simply unprepared to exercise it. In fact, the Convention is clear on this point. It stresses that children should be given increasing doses of responsibility in line with their “evolving capacities.” This means that adults will often make the final decisions – but they should be decisions informed by what the Convention calls the “best interests” of the child.
Ladies and gentlemen, the value of child participation is well established. There is, for example, a growing consensus that the future course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic lies in the hands of young people. It is therefore not only absolutely vital but also urgent that we do everything necessary to promote youth participation.
For UNICEF, our own experience has shown the remarkable extent to which participating adolescents are a positive force for needed social change. The examples are everywhere, from the Children’s Movement for Peace in Colombia to young people’s contributions to ending apartheid in South Africa – and the courageous boys and girls in places like Rwanda in Africa who are raising their younger siblings amid war, AIDS and other disasters that have deprived them of parents.
If these examples tell us anything, it is that we live in an unjust world. In my travels with UNICEF I am continually struck by the forlorn state of so much of humanity. More than two millennia have passed since the development of complex water supply systems, and yet billions of people today still live without a source of clean water. More than four centuries have passed since the printed word became widely available, and yet hundreds of millions of people still cannot read. It has been over 100 years since the equal rights of women first began to be recognized in law, and yet gender discrimination remains deeply entrenched in cultures around the world. And even though fifty years have passed since the development of cheap, easy-to-administer vaccines for many deadly diseases, more than a quarter of all the world’s children remain unimmunized.
The global statistical tables in the 2003 edition of The State of the World’s Children provide the concrete details of these and other injustices that continue to challenge us.
But we at UNICEF believe passionately that children can inspire us to overcome injustice – not as objects of our charity but as sources of optimism, ideas and energy. We are in need of all these gifts. Fortunately for us, they exist all around us.
I’m sure in the inter-generational dialogue that will begin in a few minutes we will see what I am talking about. I look forward to that exchange with the wonderful panel of children and adults who have graciously agreed to take part.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a great deal of work to do if we want to built a world that is not only fit for children, but fit for all of us. Prepare to be inspired.
Thank you very much.