Being born in Nepal is a death sentence for many children

Children represent half of Nepal’s population, but all of its future. Last week our political parties committed themselves to make children their first priority in building a New Nepal.

When I left Nepal 40 years ago, 400,000 children were born every year in this country. Of them, 100,000 died before the age of five. In 2007, nearly 800,000 children were born in Nepal, but less than 50,000 died.

It is all the more remarkable that such great strides were achieved even in the middle of a violent conflict. Nepal is now on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal for reducing under-five mortality.

Children of Nepal today are healthier and better educated than in any previous generation. Yet, children in many other countries that were in a
comparable situation with Nepali children 60 years ago have made much faster progress.

We rightly mourn the killing of nearly 14,000 Nepalis during the past decade of conflict. But we seem to take it for granted that even now 14,000 Nepali children continue to die every 14 weeks. A Nepali child dies every 10 minutes, 130 children die everyday. Being born in Nepal is a death sentence for many children.

The fact that these deaths do not arouse public outrage doesn’t lessen the tragedy and pain to the parents and families involved. It is also a shame for our nation because many of these deaths can be readily prevented.

Nearly half the children who appear in SLC exams every year ‘fail’. This is a serious blow to the self-esteem of students, a huge loss of investment by poor families, and a great waste of public funds. We train our children to accept being losers, rather than motivating them to be winners.

This must change in the New Nepal. Education is a key measure of a government’s commitment to meet the needs of its citizens. Investment in children must start when they are very young. Damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life. With almost half of Nepal’s young children suffering from chronic malnutrition, the challenge is immense. Investment in the health and education of a girl child is the most effective way to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

An educated girl tends to marry later, she is more likely to space her pregnancies, she will seek medical care for her child and herself, she will give better child care and nutrition, and will ensure that her children attend school.

Some of our good ideas can wait until we sort out our political system and governance structures. But children can’t wait. Children have only one
chance to grow. If they miss that chance, they can be doomed for life.

I have read the election manifestos of quite a few political parties. Let us remember that among the deprived and marginalised groups, the needs of their children must command our most urgent priority. The next time you are tempted to call a strike, a chakka jam, and other agitation in the pursuit of some worthy political objectives, please think of its impact on children.

Nice slogans and empty promises during elections do not constitute real priorities. The test will be how consistently the parties give priority in allocating resources for children. That requires real political will and vision.

The Joint Declaration the parties signed this week states that all children are holders of human rights. The basic needs of children should be seen as their fundamental human right, which every state, including Nepal, that has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has a legal obligation to implement. It is vital that these rights are enshrined into the future Constitution of Nepal.

(Kul Gautam is a former UN Assistant Secretary General and
Deputy Executive director of UNICEF. Adapted from a speech delivered at the signing of a commitment by political parties on the Children’s Manifesto in Kathmandu on 16 March, 2008)