Children

UN Photo/Kibae Park
Children play in Phnom Penh slum

The UN agency for children

In the aftermath of World War II, the plight of Europe’s children was grave, and a new agency created by the United Nations stepped in to provide food and clothing and health care to these children.

In 1953, UNICEF became a permanent part of the UN and began a successful global campaign against yaws, a disfiguring disease affecting millions of children, and one that can be cured with penicillin.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child

In 1959 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which defines children’s rights to protection, education, health care, shelter and good nutrition.

Education

Following more than a decade of focus on child health issues, UNICEF expanded  its interests to address the needs of the whole child. Thus began an abiding concern with education, starting with support for teacher training and classroom equipment in newly independent countries.

In 1965 the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for the Promotion of brotherhood among nations.” Today, UNICEF works in 190 countries and territories, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

UNICEF's work is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The Convention is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. The Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity. The unprecedented acceptance of the Convention clearly shows a wide global commitment to advancing children’s rights.  

Much has been accomplished since the adoption of the Convention, from declining infant mortality to rising school enrolment, but much remains to be done. 

State of the World's Children

Every child has the right to health, education and protection, and every society has a stake in expanding children’s opportunities in life. Yet, around the world, millions of children are denied a fair chance for no reason other than the country, gender or circumstances into which they are born.

Around the world, children make up nearly half of the almost 900 million people living on less than US$1.90 a day. Their families struggle to afford the basic health care and nutrition needed to provide them a strong start. These deprivations leave a lasting imprint; in 2014, nearly 160 million children were stunted. 

Despite great progress in school enrolment in many parts of the world, the number of children aged 6 to 11 who are out of school has increased since 2011. About 124 million children and adolescents do not attend school, and 2 out of 5 leave primary school without learning how to read, write or do basic arithmetic, according to 2013 data. This challenge is compounded by the increasingly protracted nature of armed conflict.

Children and armed conflict

More than twenty years ago, the world united to condemn and mobilize against the use of children in armed conflict. Since then, thousands of children have been released as a result of Action Plans mandated by the UN Security Council and other actions aimed at ending and preventing recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups. However, Serious challenges for the protection of children affected by armed conflict remain. 

Nearly 250 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflict In the Syrian Arab Republic, the five-year conflict has caused the deaths of more than 250,000 people, including thousands of children. In Afghanistan in 2015, the highest number of child casualties was recorded since the United Nations began systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2009.

In Somalia, the situation continued to be perilous, with an increase of 50 per cent in the number of recorded violations against children compared with 2014, with many hundreds of children recruited, used, killed and maimed. In a most troubling example, in South Sudan, children were victims of all six grave violations, in particular during brutal military offensives against opposition forces.

Millions of children, many of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their families are being displaced by armed conflict,  These children are at a high risk of grave violations in and around camps, and other areas of refuge. Action is urgently required to alleviate the plight of children displaced by armed conflict and the Secretary-General encourages Member States to respect the rights of displaced and refugee children and to provide them with necessary support services. 

Children and the Sustainable Development Goals

For 15 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a guiding force on many issues affecting the lives of children, young people and their families.  Over this time, tremendous progress was made in reducing preventable child deaths, getting more children into schools, reducing extreme poverty and in ensuring more people have access to safe water and nutritious food. 

However, progress has been uneven and many of the most pressing issues for the world -- including addressing inequalities, promoting inclusive economic growth, protecting children from violence and combating climate change -- were not adequately covered in the MDGs.

With the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September of 2015, world leaders have committed to ending poverty by 2030. But unless accelerated efforts are made, by 2030:

  • Almost 70 million children may die before reaching their fifth birthday – 3.6 million in 2030 alone. 
  • Children in sub-Saharan Africa will be 10 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children in high-income countries
  • Nine out of 10 children living in extreme poverty will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • More than 60 million primary school-aged children will be out of school – roughly the same number as are out of school today. More than half will be from sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Some 750 million women will have been married as children – three quarters of a billion child brides.

These vast inequities and dangers do more than violate the rights and imperil the futures of individual children. They perpetuate intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality that undermine the stability of societies and even the security of nations everywhere. 

Children and the UN system

From the focus on education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to the efforts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to abolish child labor, to the Children and Youth Programme of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to the nutritional work for mothers and young children provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), to disease-eradication campaigns by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN system is there for children.

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