What is the link between the world-famous Berliner Philharmoniker, the soccer idol David Beckham, and the action hero Jackie Chan? They are all Goodwill Ambassadors of the United Nations Children’s Fund, or in short: UNICEF. This, our speaker, Ms. Shayma Daneshjo, a UNICEF Staff of Afghan origin, told at the beginning of her briefing. The second question: So what does the I and the E stand for? For an answer we have to go back to the founding days of the Fund in 1946: UNICEF is the successor organization of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which delivered relief services to refugees of World War II (WWII) throughout Europe and Asia from November 1943 on. UNRRA was initiated by the so-called wartime United Nations, the formalized alliance of the World War II Allies. After the war and the official establishment of the UN in 1945, UNRRA’s tasks were distributed to several new UN organizations: the International Refugee Organization, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
UNICEF was thought to be a temporary agency in order to take care of the many children being separated from their families or orphaned during World War II. Today UNICEF still operates in 158 countries and territories with 7˙000 staff, serving the special needs of children through delivery of health, educational, and emergency supplies as well as advocating children’s rights.
The I&E question can partially be answered, but: What happened to the words “International” and “Emergency” in the course of time? On the basis of well-functioning UNICEF missions in the aftermath of WWII, the UN General Assembly decided in 1953 to put the Children’s Fund on a permanent mission, re-naming it to the United Nations Children’s Fund – the today’s official name. But since the new UNCF was not as pronounceable as UNICEF, the old abbreviation was kept. Today, UNICEF is still supplying materials – but only on an emergency basis. Long-term sustainable development goals became the organization’s top priority. UNICEF supports governments on a policy level to set up special programs for children. In order to receive UNICEF grants for those programs, the receiving governments have to carry out the programs on a permanent basis.
Ms. Daneshjo briefed the NMUN 2008 Delegation of Japan during its study tour at the UN Headquarters. She demonstrated the full variety of today’s UNICEF topics worldwide regarding Child Protection, a UN terminology being used to describe the response and protection of children to exploitation, violence, and abuse. This includes rather controversial topics: the protection of children during armed conflict, children associated with armed groups, child labor, child marriage, commercial sexual exploitation, trafficking, and female genital mutilation. A small selection of UNICEF’s operations was outlined by Ms. Daneshjo in the following.
Child protection during armed conflict: 1,270 people daily die an excessive death in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children are disproportionately affected by those preventable deaths, half of them being caused by malnutrition and infectious diseases. 35 percent of fighting troops of the ongoing armed conflict are embodied by children. Worldwide, about 250,000 boys and girls are serving as child soldiers. Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (adopted in 2000) the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities was raised from 15 to 18 years. Thanks to UNICEF’s Project to Assist Children about 1.6 million children in Congo were protected from recruitment. Another 5,400 child soldiers were reintegrated into their communities.
Child Labor: 218 million children worldwide are engaged in child labor. 126 million of them are between 5 and 17 years old and engaged in hazardous work. 5.7 million of them are trapped in forced labor. In comparison: in Japan live about 47 million children under the age of 15. UNICEF’s action to reduce child labor rates can be exemplified by looking at India. Through the establishment of self-help groups, the debt burden of families could be reduced while school enrolment increased. Former child laborers received life-skills education. By demonstrating the effectiveness of those UNICEF programs, the Indian government allocated special funds for further plans to reduce the rate of child labor.
Child Marriage: 60 million women globally – of those today age between 20 and 24 years old – were married before reaching the age of 18. 150,000 pregnant teenagers die annually. Teenagers experience a five times higher chance of medical complications during pregnancy due to a lack of both medical treatment and sexual education. The most recent UNICEF Picture of the Year 2007 shows an Afghan couple: the groom, Mohammed, 40 years and his bride, Ghulam, 11 years: a child. The parents of Ghulam sold their daughter to Mohammed since they did not have enough money to offer their child a desirable future. Child marriage is often caused by extreme poverty. About half of the Afghan women under 18 are being married. Only 5 percent of Afghan women can read. 1˙500˙000 (or 50 %) of the girls are withheld from primary education. UNICEF conducted a research and could show that girls with a higher level of education are less likely to be married underage. In Afghanistan the legal wedding age is 16. UNICEF as the lead agency of the UN Girl’s Education Initiative (UNGEI) establishes schools for girls in Afghanistan and provides it with basic educational equipment. The Fund also trains women to become teachers in local schools and therefore supports women empowerment. UNICEF also helps to establish community committees which bring together parents, teachers and religious leaders in order to ensure support for the girls’ primary education within the civil society.
UNICEF originally was founded to administer the residual funds of UNRRA and to take care of the many children abandoned during World War II. Today the Fund faces worldwide challenges and actively advocates children’s rights: ranging from education to the prevention of female genital mutilation. The world’s children are the world’s future – hopefully a better one.
Matthias A. Simnacher