UNITED NATIONS CHILDREN'S SUMMIT
Seble Demeke, UN
The United Nations Childrens Summit was held from 8- 10 May 2002 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Government leaders, heads of states, United Nations agencies, civil societies and NGOs advocating childrens rights, and most importantly about 400 children from all over the world participated in the Summit. On the opening day of the Summit, 8 May 2002, hundreds of children joined by mothers and young people marched in the city of New York, for childrens rights (the Convention on the Right of the Child has been ratified by 190 Member States as the international standard for child rights) and in support of the Summit. Newspapers wrote about the Summit giving their own opinions, major television stations and radios broadcasted the event worldwide. According to the information from UNICEFs website, children from 100 countries carried their national flags and held placards that read, Global Campaign for Education, demanding an end to the recruitment of child soldiers and for actions to be taken for orphans and vulnerable children. They wore T-shirts that read, Free Education and End Child Labour. One can sum up in a nutshell that the aim of the Summit an attempt to change the world on how we should treat our children was very well received and its message clearly understood.
The background of the present Summit is a follow-up to the 1990 Summit for Children where 159 governments were represented of which 73 had signed the World Declaration on Survival, Protection and Development of Children and adopted a plan of action to achieve a set of precise, time-bound goals. These goals included Improving living conditions for children and their chances for survival by increasing access to health services for women and children ; reducing the spread of preventable diseases ; creating more opportunities for education ; providing better sanitation and greater food supply ; and protecting children in danger. The purpose of the second Summit was, therefore, to review what has been done since 1990,and based on the lessons learned, set a future plan of action for children during the next decade.. Information from the UNICEF website further described what is expected of the session, as follows: to come up with a global agenda, which contains the best possible start in life for all children. This includes a good quality basic education for all children and the opportunities for participation in their communities. This agenda, if implemented even 50 %, would significantly change the situation of children worldwide and mostly those in the developing countries. Some of the facts of the current situation are that approximately 11 million children die each year before their 5 th birthday. About 600 million children or 40 percent of all children in developing countries, are living in absolute poverty (less than $1 a day) ; 30 million children are not routinely vaccinated, resulting in millions of deaths from preventable killers like diphtheria, TB, measles and tetanus.
The United Nations and one of its programmes, the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), specifically responsible for improving the well being of women and children world wide, deserve a special congratulation and thanks for organizing the Summit and providing the forum for interaction between governments, intergovernmental bodies, civil societies and NGOs as well as other independent associations and groups, who are devoted to bring about a change to the current situation of children. I would not be entirely mistaken if I say the Summit was successful and that without the United Nation and its focused programmes and specialized agencies, very little could have been achieved globally in terms of convincing governments to be committed, not only to accept certain basic principles, but also for bringing the issue of children to the forefront of their national agenda as one of the urgent priorities to be tackled.
However, what some people say that think globally but act nationally is not entirely wrong. The need of each region and each country is different and diverse, which requires focused and specific attention at the regional and national level. The ILO came up with statistics in 1996, which are quite revealing and show the distribution of economically active children 5-14 years of age in developing countries, by region and sex, as follows:
Source: ILO Bureau of Statistics (Geneva, 1996)
The table below shows clearly where the concentration of the problems is.
After the sensitization of governments and the population of the world at large on the urgent needs of actions to be taken in order to give children a better world, concrete and clear decisions need to be made without further delay, in order for all the efforts made so far to bear fruit. Actions and realities of situations need to match. For this to happen, the first step would be to assess the needs of each country and see what are the elements, which have contributed to the current state of affair of children of that specific country. In some countries, childrens problems are related to civil wars, which generate millions of refugees of whom the majority are women and children. They are the first victims in their own countries and in the countries that receive them. In other countries the root of the problems are purely the level of poverty, which forces instinct solutions upon the families for survival and yet in others it is purely poor management and corruption by local authorities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to deal with the causes of the problem and not only one segment of it. The situations of the worlds children need to be looked at comprehensively and not in isolation. All those mothers (some with newborn babies) who marched in the city of New York, on 8 May 2002, understood exactly what the problem is and I can say, with no hesitation, that No Mother in the world would send out her 5 year old to make money for the family, if it is not only and only for survival reasons. But the saddest news is that, that 5 year old might not even come back home ! This is probably easier for mothers to understand better why all these tragic situations are happening to children in our world today than for economists who try to figure it out through economic theories and analysis.
To conclude this long story, I would say that it is high time to search for honest approaches and ways on how to deal with the level of poverty in some of the developing countries, which are the root causes of the problem. Governments of these countries are primarily responsible to look for such approaches in consultation with their own population and take the problems in their own hands. They cannot get away from these responsibilities and by now they better know that nobody else is going to fix their problems for them. Other groups such as, civil societies, NGOs and the international community through the United Nations system are also equally responsible to play their part in the effort being made by national governments to reduce at least the level of desperation, if not the level of poverty. Arent we advocating that we are living in a global world ? If we accept the new rule of the game we should then also accept the responsibilities globally and bear in mind that we are all accountable for the suffering of millions of lives due to injustices and poverty. Exploitation of children, using them as soldiers in conflicts, child labour and all other forms of abuses did not happen over night. They are the results of continuous poverty, desperation and injustices of centuries and decades.