State of world's children

UN summit shows progress, but broad unforeseen crises blight lives of millions.

Ismael was only 14 when he was pressed into service as a soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war. Over time, he became comfortable with guns. "That human thing that makes you care for other people" disappears, says the 20-year-old today of his experience.

Misbaulhaq, 14, was orphaned long ago by one of Afghanistan's many civil conflicts. He is but one of a million Afghan dependents who have lost their parents. "We were the forgotten children for so many years," he says.

Gabriela Azurdy Arrieta, 13, was one of only two children to address the three-day United Nations Children's Summit from the official podium. "We are children who are not being heard; it is time we were taken into account," said the Bolivian youngster.

One of the most universal aspirations of mankind is for a better world for children. Yet too often grown-ups fail younger generations in this regard, deplorably.

"Let us not make children pay for our failures anymore," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his address to the three-day World Summit for Children.

There has been measured progress since a similar UN conference in 1990 set goals and priorities for improving childrens' lives. Some diseases which in the past took a horrible toll of the young, such as polio, have been finally eradicated in the last decade. Deaths due to diarrhea – a scourge of less-developed nations – have been cut in half, saving 1.5 million infants a year.

Nearly 1 billion people have better access to clean water than they did in 1990. More children than ever before are enrolled in programs of formal education. The percentage of eligible children enrolled in primary schools increased from 80 percent in 1990 to 82 percent in 1999.

Moreover, the gender gap in primary education is decreasing, although girls still constitute the majority of unenrolled children.

Arshela Amir Ali, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl attending one of the many side meetings of the UN conference, said she was shocked when she heard someone use a Nepalese expression that compared paying for the education of a girl to watering a neighbor's plants. "It's seen as useless," she says. "But they should think it is like watering your own garden."

But for all the slow progress made in focused areas, large, unforeseen crises continue to blight children's lives.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic, for instance, now exceeds most worst-case predictions made in 1990. Estimates hold that 500,000 children under age 15 died of AIDS in the year 2000. Every minute, six people between the ages of 15 and 24 become infected with the HIV virus, according to UN estimates.

Some 13 million children have lost either their mother or both parents to the pandemic, says a UN report.

Then there is war. Armed conflict continues to take a heavy toll on civilians, and the young in particular. The rising cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence, for instance, has had an insidious effect on the young on both sides, as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have noted. Israeli children have been victims of suicide bombings. Palestinian children have seen their homes and lives smashed in retaliatory Israeli attacks. Some Palestinian youths see so little hope for their future that adults have been able to convince them to launch the suicide attacks.

"Once the children are affected by war, they lose their innocence, they lose the ability to learn because educational facilities are being destroyed," says Alireza Hajihosseini, 17, an Iranian boy who has attended schools in the United States on and off for years.

There are 2.1 billion children in the world today, according to UN documents. They account for 32 percent of the world's population.

Of these, 1 in 4 live in abject poverty, with their families subsisting on less than one dollar a day. Of every 100 children born this year, 54 will live in Asia. Nineteen will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Seven will live in the industrialized world, including the United States, Western Europe, and Japan.

Forty of these 100 infants will not be registered with any civic authorities. "These children will have no official existence or recognition of nationality," notes a UN document.

Thirty of these 100 will suffer from malnutrition in their first five years of live. Seventeen will never go to school. Of every 100 children who enter first grade, 25 will not reach the fifth grade.

In the developing world, one in five children will work. If this trend is to be reversed, employers must be convinced to hire adults instead, International Labor Organization head Juan Somavia told the conference.

"Employers are the key players," said Mr. Somavia.

One constant controversy of UN conferences surfaced early at this week's children summit: abortion. The meeting is to produce a list of goals to carry forward in the years ahead, and the Bush administration was working to try and exclude language from the document that it believes promotes abortion.

At issue was a reference in the draft document to providing "reproductive health services", which US officials have long held is a code word for abortion.

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson also urged the conference to consider abstinence as the most effective way of preventing transmittal of HIV/AIDS.

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