United Nations

Creating a "World Fit for Children"

The upcoming UN Special Session on Children will review progress since the 1990 World Summit on Children, focusing on new problems and issues facing children and adolescents worldwide.

UNITED NATIONS - While the global village struggles with the complexities of armed conflict and human rights, in the imaginary land of Sesame Street, a small seed of peace is sprouting.

A purple Israeli puppet named Dafi and an orange Palestinian figure named Haneen are learning to respect and value each other's culture in a way that often eludes their real-life neighbors. Dafi lives on Rechov Sumsum, while Haneen lives on a parallel street called Shara'a Simsim - the respective Hebrew and Arabic terms for "Sesame Street."

Sometimes the two puppets visit each other. They are surprised at what they have in common - like the fried chickpea dish known as falafel - and they marvel at what between them is unique.

The video screening of this three-year-old experimental television program, shown across the street from United Nations headquarters in New York at UNICEF House, was just one of many events highlighting the possibilities for a more positive future for children offered at a UN preparatory conference (prepcom) held 29 January-2 February 2001 for the upcoming Special Session of the UN General Assembly on children and adolescents.

Scheduled for 19-21 September 2001 in New York, the Special Session seeks to undertake a review of progress on children's issues since the 1990 World Summit for Children. Its main outcome is expected to be a declaration and plan of action, tentatively titled "A World Fit for Children," which aims to build on the achievements of the 1990 Summit and update its global agenda.

As adopted by the government delegates at the January-February prepcom, the draft declaration seeks to create a "child-friendly world" by promoting principles designed to put children's "physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual development" at the forefront of national and global priorities.

More specifically, the declaration focuses on a set of 10 principles designed to reaffirm the commitments made at the 1990 Summit and to mobilize a "global movement for children" that will put them "first" in all national and international plans.

Among these principles are: ending all forms of discrimination; ensuring free, basic, compulsory education for all; protecting children from war; stopping the exploitation of children; fighting poverty; protecting the environment for future generations; and listening to children more carefully.

"We have the power and the resources to mobilize a global movement for children, a movement that will put the world on a path to end the poverty, ill health, violence and discrimination that needlessly blights and destroys so many lives," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy at the opening session of the prepcom.

Much of the declaration also focused on strengthening the environment in which children are raised, whether by bringing an end to war, fighting poverty, or simply bolstering the family.

"The family is the fundamental unit of society and holds the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children," states the draft declaration. "All institutions of society should respect and provide protection and assistance to parents and families so that children can grow and develop in a safe, stable and supportive environment."

Another prepcom is scheduled for June, and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) said they hope that the draft declaration can be strengthened before its final adoption at the Special Session in September.

"The outcome document, as it stands right now, could be stronger in terms of protecting girls and ensuring a nurturing environment for them," said Bani Dugal Gujral, a member of the Steering Committee of the NGO Working Group on Girls and director of the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women. "In most cultures, girls are still at risk due to the social conditions in which they live."

NGO participation

In addition to negotiations on the draft declaration, the prepcom was marked by a number of subsidiary events. Immediately prior to the prepcom, NGO representatives organized a series of sessions on such themes as the effect of poverty on children; the status of girls; child exploitation and labor; children's health and the environment; HIV/AIDS and its effects on children and families; violence; education; and implementation and monitoring of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A panel discussion on the girl child, organized by the NGO Working Group on Girls, sought, for example, to examine threats to the well-being of girls, such as genital mutilation, rape and sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, depression and suicide. "The focus has been on the education of girls, but there should be a special curriculum for boys, so they will be taught to respect women," said Mary Purcell, former chair of the NGO Working Group on Girls, and a participant.

As at recent UN conferences, representatives of various conservative religious organizations came to promote a pro-family, anti-abortion platform. To avert potential friction between these groups and other more liberal NGOs going to the Special Session on Children in September, the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN held a special dialogue for these two groups on 8 February.

"Our intention was to bring together groups from across the political spectrum who normally don't talk to each other, to discuss how the religious community could best make a contribution, and, if necessary, agreeing to disagree," said Jeffery Huffines, the representative of the Bahá'í Community of the United States to the United Nations, who is vice-chair of the religious NGOs committee.

Jennifer Butler, Associate for Global Issues at the Presbyterian Church of the USA, said: "Most religious NGOs work to strengthen and augment the goals of the UN; pro-family groups have a deep-seated suspicion[ of the UN]. It sets up a very politicized climate."

One such suspicion held by conservative groups is that UNICEF promotes abortion. Meg Gardinier of the US Fund for UNICEF, sought to dispel that notion. "No funds go to this, and UNICEF doesn't support it."

Austin Ruse, president of C-FAM, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, spoke on behalf of the conservative groups. "We know we are a minority viewpoint," he said. "We have a narrow set of issues so we don't want to work on everything. Our main concern is the document itself."

Discussion centered mainly on the need for all these groups to work together, get involved in the process earlier, and find areas of common agreement around which all religious groups could coalesce. "While we have differences substantively, we all have the same desire for an open process," said Mr. Ruse.

The goal, many agreed, was to be able to feed ideas into the formal government session. Religious groups offer a critical difference of perspective, from charity to empowerment, said Ms. Gardinier, and it is an important contribution. "There is a need for an interfaith coalition," she said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be formal, but governments like a united voice."

At the 1990 Summit, world leaders identified the major challenges to children's survival and well-being, and pledged to fulfill certain goals by the year 2000 - goals such as improving access to adequate health care; reducing the spread of preventable diseases; creating more opportunities for education; providing better sanitation and greater food supply; and protecting children in danger.

The draft declaration for the Special Session seeks to build on those commitments, while addressing new challenges such as HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and increased sexual trafficking of children, and expressing concern for existing challenges that remain unmet. For example, more than half a billion survive on less than a dollar a day, one third fail to complete five years of schooling, 2 million are dead as a result of armed conflict, and more than 100 million children work in dangerous circumstances, subjected to violence and exploitation.

"There's been a movement away from the abstract, which was creating a context for the rights of children, toward the concrete, which is actually holding governments accountable for international standards regarding children's rights," said Jackie Shapiro of Zonta International, co-chair of the NGO Committee on UNICEF's Working Group on Girls.

While acknowledging that "a brighter future for all has proved elusive" since 1990, the document identifies some hopeful trends: better communications, technical and medical advances; new human rights-based approaches to development; the growing acceptance of values such as freedom, equality, and non-violence; and enhanced partnerships with the private sector.

The document focuses on three key outcomes as a framework for action: early childhood development, to insure "the best possible start in life;" basic education as a fundamental human right; and adolescent development and participation, to empower them to build better futures.

-- by Veronica Shoffstall