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2 February 2009 - Address by Ms. Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East & North Africa, at the opening of the 2nd Islamic Ministerial Conference on the Child

Mr. Vice-President,  Your Excellency the Director-General of ISESCO, Madam President of the First Islamic Conference of Ministers in Charge of Childhood, Madam Minister of Social Welfare, Women and Children’s Affairs of the Republic of Sudan, Your Excellency the Assistant Secretary-General for Social Affairs of the Arab League.

Distinguished representatives of OIC delegations, ladies and gentlemen, and – most importantly – girls and boys.

We are delighted to join you today, representing UNICEF. The Executive Director Ms. Ann Veneman sends her regrets as our Executive Board meeting has prevented her from attending this important gathering. I will naturally brief her on the outcomes later this week.

The First Islamic Ministerial Conference on the Child held in Rabat in 2005 organised by ISESCO in cooperation with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and UNICEF was truly ground breaking, building on the strength of Islamic values of solidarity and protection of children and I would like to reiterate our thanks to the Kingdom of Morocco for hosting that important event.

Mr Director-General, you noted at that time that the tremendous success of that First Conference underlined “the central value of children in Islamic culture and demonstrated to the international community the determination of the Islamic Ummah to build a just, peaceful and prosperous world by investing in its children”.

Today we can reaffirm that commitment and report on measurable progress made since 2005.

The OIC member states currently reinforce a broader, global framework that upholds the fundamental rights of children. All OIC Member States have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and have adopted the Millennium Declaration, the Millennium Development Goals and the goals of A World Fit for Children.

Success is measured however by progress for children in their daily lives. We have witnessed considerable progress for children; and much of it can be seen and felt amongst the estimated 600 million children living in OIC member states.

Measles immunization coverage in OIC states stands at 78 per cent, vitamin A coverage is above 80 per cent, more than three-quarters of those living in OIC countries have access to clean water, while there has been an increase in the number of mothers receiving ante-natal care in the last decade. We know many more examples will be shared in the presentations over the next two days, but we feel it is important to stress at the outset that much good work is being done, the results achieved and work still in progress.

Protection is harder to measure. Here, we turn to our hosts, Sudan, for one specific example of how tangible steps are being taken to strengthen the protective environment for those most at risk. During my last visit to Sudan in 2007, I witnessed the launch of a new system of Family and Child Protection Units led by the national police, which provided comprehensive professional care and support for children affected by crime – including sexual violence and rape. Today, I understand that there are now 14 such units established across the country, benefiting thousands of children who previously had no access to their rights. Mr. Vice-President, your government is to be congratulated and commended for placing such a high priority on the protection of these most vulnerable of children.

UNICEF’s global strategy on child protection was forged in consultation with OIC member states. Ensuring the protection of children is integral to efforts in attaining the Millennium Development Goals.

Attaining the MDGs will also be dependant on effective partnerships. OIC members already represent a powerful collective force for change, and a shining example of the south-south collaboration that is critical to progress. We also encourage the participation of the international community, the private sector, NGOs, civil society and perhaps most importantly children and young people themselves.

The need for concerted action is evident.

Greater efforts are needed to implement and monitor legislation. While declarations have been adopted, and child-friendly legislation in many countries has been ratified, there remains a gap between the written and the realities facing children. Disparities exist; between countries, within countries, between the way in which we treat boys and girls. Not all children are able to attend school or have their basic health needs met, and children remain victims of violence, exploitation and abuse whether in their home, school, or wider community.

We only have to turn on our televisions, or radio, or open the newspaper to know that right now, today, children are suffering.  The tragic events which beset the children of Gaza was seen by all. Within the OIC community, in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and here in Sudan, children are experiencing the consequences of conflict.

Let me make special mention of Gaza from which I have just returned. I have been visiting Gaza for 20 years, but never have I been as taken aback as I was on my visit this time. The state of children’s wellbeing, particularly their psychosocial condition, left a deep impression.

As UNICEF has stated before during the recent crisis, the children in Gaza have been deprived not only of the basic human rights any human being should enjoy but are also denied the fundamental rights specific to children, to which the signatories of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are duty bound. These include the rights of children to be protected from all forms of physical or mental violence and injury, and the right to education, development and access to healthcare services.

As we begin providing humanitarian assistance and work towards reconstruction, we will speak for the children of Gaza, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, just as we continue to speak out for all children, everywhere. Their rights are no less equal than any other child’s.

Children bear the brunt in conflict: from death and injury to them or their parents; from family separation; from loss of access to public services and due to grave violations of their rights including sexual violence or recruitment into armed forces and groups. This has a long term impact on their social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual well being and development, as well as being immediate threats to life and health.

The indirect consequences are no less significant: the disruption of family and community structures traditionally responsible for children’s protection; the threat of abuse, exploitation, neglect, emotional distress caused by displacement, or living in overcrowded camps; the collapse of public services and structures that further undermine the protection of children.

Ladies and gentlemen, the coming two days provides an opportunity to examine what we can do together to tackle the threats still facing children, whether natural or man-made.

Awareness is key to moving forward; the information we need exists, but if we do not gather it and harness it, we cannot knowledgeably respond to issues of concern.

We should not shy away from issues that are illegal, clandestine or culturally sensitive. If we do not speak up on such issues – while respecting the dignity and security of those concerned – they will not be resolved.

The First Conference in 2005 was characterised by frank and open discussion on overcoming difficult challenges, including many of the harmful traditional practices that are often wrongly associated with Islam, such as child marriage, female genital cutting, and gender discrimination in education.

The UN Secretary-General’s Report on Violence Against Children, issued in 2006, provided a further opportunity for member states to identify different forms of violence, and allowed countries to initiate action to better protect children.

Let us continue in that spirit of openness, and break the silence on issues that for too long have been considered taboos.

If we are to act for children, there must be adequate resources to enable such action. Despite the current economic pressures facing many, governments must continue – and increase – budgetary allocations for children; in service provision, for technical assistance, for knowledge gathering. These investments, of course, must be grounded in solid legislation and policy that place the rights of children at its very core.

Efforts must continue to improve developmental readiness for school, to increase rates of access, retention and completion (especially for girls) and to enhance the overall quality of education.

There is a need to increase care and services for families made vulnerable by HIV and AIDS, promote expanded access to treatment for children and women and prevent infection

Mr. Vice-President, Mr. Director-General, ladies and gentlemen, the work of the member states gathered here today cannot be under-estimated. You have achieved much for the children of your respective nations, and contributed to the broader goals that the world has set itself. I am proud that UNICEF has been able to support much of this progress, and my organization looks forward to a continued partnership in the name of children



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