Outlook 2000


Judith Achieng

With
only limited success in enforcing universal respect for children’s rights so
far, UN agencies and rights groups are hoping the next century will see new
efforts to achieve the goals of the 1990 World Children Summit and other
rights accords. "The challenge so far is how to make a reality, the rights
of the child, in a world where action is lagging behind commitments and
resolutions," says UNICEF’s deputy director for Eastern and Southern
Africa, David Pulkol. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by
the United Nations in November 1989, reaffirms that children, because of their
vulnerability, have a right to special care and protection, including the
protective responsibility of the family. Child Rights first became a global
issue in 1942 when the international community began to address the plight of
suffering children after World War II.

Much has been
achieved between then and 1990 when the first World Summit for Children
brought political leaders to the United Nations in New York to discuss new
possibilities for protecting children. The Summit set several year 2000 goals:
reduce infant and under-five child mortality rates by one-third of the 1990
levels; reduce malnutrition by half of 1990 levels; and improve protection of
children in especially difficult circumstances. Recent surveys indicate that
most of the goals to slash major infant and child death-causing diseases have
largely been met, mainly as a result of successful national immunization
campaigns around the world.

As of 1994, 108
out of the 187 countries which ratified the convention reached the target of
80 percent immunization. Only 15 countries have fallen behind 1990 levels. The
year 2000 target of 90 percent immunization has so far been reached by 45
countries.

In
industrialized countries, death rates of children are much lower, and by 1993,
had dropped to less than half of 1970 rates. Romania has the highest mortality
rates of 300 deaths of infants and young people per 100,000 population, and
Japan the lowest at 90 deaths per 100,000 population.

The latest
global campaign to eradicate polio, and eliminate vitamin A deficiency has
been described as a remarkable story of vision and commitment by the world
community, with eradication registered in more than 30 countries so far.

Even in
difficult circumstances, exceptional efforts were made. In Tanzania and
Zambia, for example, boats and planes were used to reach villages on islands
and in the mountains. In Sudan, bicycles were flown in for delivering
vaccines.

"The success
of the global immunization effort is unprecedented, but there is need to take
a closer look at this achievement," notes UNICEF. "The tremendous gains
against polio, for example, are tempered by the continuing threat of other
diseases, such as measles."

Sub-Saharan
Africa which fares the worst, is each year unable to provide more than half of
its children with the necessary three doses of DPT vaccine to prevent
diptheria, pertusis, and tetanus (DPT).

Globally, up to
26 million children do not receive their three DPT shots. "It should be one
of the biggest news stories of all time—the prospect of vaccines that could
save the lives of 8 million children each year, or 22,000 children each and
every day," says UNICEF. "Could it be that these eight million children
are, overwhelmingly, the unseen, unheard, children of the poor?"

Child labor is
another area where the international community has failed to translate the
rights of the child into reality as more than 370 million children, between
the ages of 5 and 14, in developing countries work, and often, are exploited.
The majority, 61 percent, work in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and the
remaining 7 percent in Latin America. Poverty and cultural values which
require children to work, have been offered as the main reasons why children
work in the three regions, and that poor households need the money that their
children can earn. Children contribute around 20 to 25 percent of family
income.

"Since by
definition poor households spend the bulk of their income on food, it is clear
that the income provided by working children is critical to their survival,"
says a 1998 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, released during
the February African Regional Tripartite Meeting On Child Labour in the
Ugandan capital of Kampala.

The ILO
estimates that the growing army of child laborers in Africa could swell by a
million new children every year to more than 100 million by 2015 if social
trends persist. "Poverty, undoubtedly makes children’s rights more
difficult, but the notion that people are poor so as to justify child labour
is wrong," says John Doohan, who is in charge of information at the
Geneva-based ILO. A landmark in the struggle to combat child labour was
reached last June when the ILO adopted a new international treaty, outlawing
extreme forms of child labor. The treaty, which is expected to become law
before year’s end, places a ban on extreme working conditions affecting the
health and development of children such as slavery, bondage, and factory work.

"We are
seeing an enormous change from an attitude that almost guaranteed that child
labour would not change," Doohan says. In Africa and Asia more than 90
percent of children working as domestics, one of the most exploitative forms
of child labor, are girls.

Studies
conducted by the Population Council in Kenya, for example, show that 8- to
14-year-old girls work at domestic chores, for 19 hours a week, boys for 14
hours. In Bangladesh, out-of- school boys spend 12 minutes a day on domestic
duties, compared to 5 hours for girls. Studies in India have shown that 9 out
of 10 households employing domestics preferred 12- to 15-year-old girls.
Similar gender disparities in education have been noted in many schools in
developing countries outside Latin America, where boys have higher rates of
enrollment and are more likely to remain in school. For example, more than 4
times as many Yemeni boys attend secondary schools as do girls—36 percent to
8 percent. In Nepal, 49 percent of boys reach secondary schools, compared to
25 percent of girls.

Teenage brides
may be less common now than a generation ago, but in many countries and for
many young girls, it is still a worrying norm. UNICEF data from some 53
countries show that the highest rates of girls married at age 15 and below are
in sub-Saharan Africa (25 percent), followed by Asia.

Perhaps the
greatest challenges in the 21st century will be armed conflicts and HIV/AIDS
which have increased the vulnerability of women and children. Compared with
armed conflicts, HIV/AIDS kills far more people, and at the same time has been
described as "a silent emergency whose effect threatens to violate all the
tenets of the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

The magnitude
of the orphan crisis which has so far left 8.2 children without parents is
indescribable in most African countries worst hit by the scourge, eroding the
hard-won gains of child survival strategies. In Botswana, AIDS will be
responsible for 64 percent of deaths of children under 5 by 2000 while in
South Africa and Zimbabwe, AIDS is projected to account for a 100 percent
increase in child mortality. Studies in Zambia show 68 percent of orphans have
dropped out of school and there are an increasing number of child-headed
households.

"The
challenge to us is how to reverse these invisible challenges of HIV that are
making the plight of the child more visible," says Pulkol. "It is taking
away teachers, doctors and parents, who are of the very service providers who
have obligations to fulfill the rights of children."

Armed conflicts
in the last few decades have, on the other hand, more and more targeted
civilians, with health workers, teachers, and other service providers often
being the first to flee, leaving children vulnerable to malnutrition and
diseases.

Reaching the
goals the world set for itself in 1990 seems an ambitious plan, when thousands
of children continue to work as soldiers in war situations and the unresolved
controversial issue of landmines continues to affect a large children
population in most war-torn African and Asian countries. Some 300,000 children
are estimated to be involved in wars at present, killing and dying for causes
they barely understand.

There are also
important lessons to be drawn during the next Children’s Summit in 2001,
from the genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia, where decades of
immunization work were devalued as aid workers found themselves burying
children they had struggled to vaccinate against early childhood diseases. It
will, however, not be an easy task to improve the condition of the child as
the new millennium approaches.


As Carol
Bellamy, UNICEF’s executive director, said while launching the agency’s
1999 State of the State of the World’s Children Report in July: "Half of
the world’s poor are children and more babies are being born into poverty
now than ever before." Never in history have we seen such numbers.
                     Z