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With only limited success in enforcing universal respect for childrens 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 UNICEFs 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 timethe 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 childrens 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 years 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 girls36 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 Childrens 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, UNICEFs executive director, said while launching the agencys 1999 State of the State of the Worlds Children Report in July: "Half of the worlds poor are children and more babies are being born into poverty now than ever before." Never in history have we seen such numbers. Z