WASHINGTON - While delegates to the Bali climate conference tried to hammer out an agreement to preserve the planet for future generations, in New York delegates to a UN General Assembly Special Session wrestled with another pressing problem: how to meet the promise of "A World Fit for Children" made by world governments in 2002.
With record participation -- including some 75 children from developed and developing countries and 140 UN delegates -- member countries met Dec. 11-13 to discuss progress since the commitments made in 2002, and step up progress toward overcoming the remaining obstacles.
In the final declaration, delegates acknowledged the need for a "collective sense of urgency" in pursuit of improved conditions for children.
The declaration pointed to poverty as the single most urgent problem facing children around the world. When parents are poor, children have fewer opportunities to receive adequate health care and attend school, and are more vulnerable to both labor and sexual exploitation, as well as HIV infection.
In a report released earlier in the week, UNICEF, the UN agency charged with protecting children's rights and well-being, presented some key statistics. On the positive side, mortality among children under five years of age dropped below the 10 million mark in 2006 for the first time ever.
But progress in child survival continues to be slow in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where diseases such as malaria and pneumonia regularly rob children of their lives. Countries with poor performance are often those affected by conflict or widespread HIV epidemics.
More and more countries are making tangible progress toward the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. At the 2002 World Fit for Children gathering, 150 million children were being deprived of basic education. Five years later, the total has dropped by 20 million, but in the words of UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson, progress is still "far from" sufficient.
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In more than 60 developing countries primary school enrolment reaches or exceeds 90 per cent, according to UNICEF data. But experience on the ground suggests that this achievement is undermined by figures on school attendance -- believed to be at least 13 percent lower than enrollment rates -- as well as drop-out in later years.
In most developing countries children do not complete primary school because of the need to help on family farms, seek paid employment, or, in the case of girls, due to cultural practices demanding early marriage. UNICEF data indicate that only about 60 percent of children in developing countries go on to secondary school.
In regard to HIV, the UNICEF report noted that availability of reliable prevention information and tools remains low in many countries, and only 15 percent of children infected with the virus worldwide are receiving life-enhancing anti-retrovirals.
Child delegates made impassioned pleas to the assembled delegates. In the words of Kenyan youth delegate Millicent Atieno Orondo, 15: "This is our final chance to ask you to keep your promises and your final warning that action needs to be taken. It is no longer a question of what to do and how to do it, but of what is given priority."
The teenager rightly highlighted that effective strategies for improving children's lives are available, but to make a difference in children's lives governments must make budgetary commitments to implementing and enforcing them.
At the close of the meeting UN member countries agreed to step up efforts in health and education that will save children's lives and help to guarantee their future well-being. Delegates also agreed on the need for increased cooperation with international aid agencies, the media, and private businesses to achieve the goals set in 2002.
© 2007 One World