8 May 2002


Press Briefing


There were more than 1 billion children between the ages of 10 and 18, which meant that the decisions made now and in coming years would determine the demographic, economic and political future of the century, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference this morning, as the General Assembly's special session on children opened at Headquarters.

President of the United Nations Foundation, Timothy Wirth, said that the urgency of dealing with issues of adolescent health, including reproductive health care, should bring nations together with an even greater sense of commitment.  The millions of adolescents around the world becoming infected with HIV/AIDS made the urgency of reaching consensus even more pressing.

Joining him was Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), who also emphasized the importance of reaffirming this week the commitment to ensure that young people had access to reproductive information, health and education services.  She recalled that governments had already committed themselves to children at the 1990 World Summit for Children.  The challenge today remained largely the same, namely to improve the lives of the world's children and adolescents and respect their human rights.

Each year, she said, 15 to 17 million adolescent girls got pregnant; 82 million between 10 and 17-years old got married; more than 50,000 adolescent girls became afflicted with obstetric fistula and 4.4 million resorted to abortion, of which 40 per cent were performed under unsafe conditions.  And, every day, thousands of adolescents, a majority of them female, become newly infected with HIV/AIDS.

In today's world, access to information, education and services would protect those girls against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, she went on.  That was really a matter of life and death for them.  The sexual and reproductive health of adolescents was a very sensitive issue, but fortunately, world leaders in the past had met and agreed on many components of that sensitive issue.

She said it had begun in 1994, during the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), where 179 governments expressly affirmed that the needs and rights of adolescents to reproductive health, education and services had to be provided.  That had required support and guidance from parents, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

That commitment was reaffirmed in Beijing during the Women's Conference in 1995 and in the follow-up conferences and special sessions of the General Assembly in 1999 and 2000, she said.  It was crucial and appropriate that the current special session reaffirm those previously adopted principles.

Today, nearly half the world's population was below the age of 25, she noted.  That meant that a large contingent would be entering reproductive life in the near future.  The number of young men and women aged 15 to 24 would increase by 17 per cent, to 1.2 billion, by 2030, with a particularly large portion of that increase in Africa.  Around the world, early childbearing continued to hinder women's advancement, as pregnant girls dropped out of school.  Moreover, pregnant

teenagers were five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their early 20s.

Some progress had been made since Cairo in 1994, as governments and civil society around the world had spearheaded bold initiatives to counter child abuse and violence.  The UNFPA and the UN Foundation had been at the forefront of launching programmes that provided young people with information and services, in order to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the resulting recourse to unsafe abortion, and help them avoid sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.  Peer counseling was among the pioneering programmes.

Twelve years after the World Summit on Children, the question was whether children under the age of 18 were better off today than they were a decade ago, Mr. Wirth said.  The answer was "mixed".  On the positive side of the ledger, there had been significant gains in the health and well-being of young children under the age of 10.  Infant mortality had been reduced, polio was nearly eradicated, immunizations were up and the incidence of measles was down. 

He defined three major areas of disagreement on the outcome document for the Session: language relating to the "rights" of children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child; language related to reproductive health services; and the provision of sex education and reproductive health services for adolescents.  On the last, some delegations were suggesting an abstinence-only until marriage approach; others believed that a comprehensive approach that included abstinence made more sense. 

One of the difficulties was that so many adolescents around the world were married, he said.  The abstinence-only approach was difficult for certain countries facing the worst of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  Young people, especially young girls, were among the highest risk populations for HIV infection in many countries.  There were also the challenges of early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and a host of other health concerns.

He said those three areas of disagreement would likely be the focus of extensive negotiations in the coming days.  Promoting cultural tolerance was important.  Negotiators should respect cultural differences and underscore the fact that policy-making in those areas was a national prerogative –- sovereignty was not under negotiation at the special session. 

For those countries that continued to be concerned about certain language, he suggested that they recall the pragmatic position taken by the Holy See at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.  Everyone had made every effort to address concerns expressed by the Holy See's delegation, in light of its charitable contributions to children around the world. 

In the end, he added, despite a few words and phrases that that delegation found troubling, it signed on to the Programme of Action, rather than block consensus on the text, and expressed several reservations on certain paragraphs.  That was a viable option for the handful of countries at the special session who might find certain text objectionable, but wanted to facilitate a successful outcome. 

One correspondent sought reaction to the following comments:  that the United States appeared to be "going back" on the language agreed in Beijing and Cairo; and reservations were fine as long as they were expressed by only a few countries.  How would a lot of countries with reservations affect Mr. Wirth's suggestion? he asked.

Replying first to the notion of "going back" on language, Mr. Wirth said the purpose of the special session was to measure what had been achieved on the agreements reached at the first children's Summit and not to go back and review the basic framework.  Each of the United Nations special sessions was productive if they moved ahead, rather than went backwards. 

A perfect example was the upcoming "Rio+ 10" Conference in Johannesburg in late August, he added.  The negotiators had agreed not to go back into the basic documents or into "Agenda 21", the agreed framework of action.  That was the precedent that should be developed.  Almost every nation here wanted to move ahead.  The two or three countries that were stuck on two or three phrases should take reservations; that was the useful way of resolving differences and moving ahead.

Ms. Obaid wished to remind correspondents that it had been made clear at the ICPD that abortion was not a form of family planning.  The availability of reproductive health services decreased the possibility of having an abortion.  In terms of reservations, she recalled the difficulties during the special session on HIV/AIDS and the distance between governments.  In the end, there had been only one reservation.  The seriousness of HIV/AIDS had made governments come together and agree on a text acceptable to all.  Hopefully, negotiators at the current session would take into their hearts and minds the situation of children today, especially those living with HIV/AIDS, she added.

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For information media. Not an official record.