Safeguarding the Best Interest of Children in New Nepal

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam

At Celebration of Four Decades of UNICEF in Nepal

Kathmandu, 20 November 2009

We are gathered here today to celebrate four decades of a remarkable partnership for Nepal’s children. When the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) opened its country office in Kathmandu 40 years ago, the situation of Nepal’s children was among the worst in the world.

We still have much progress to make, but the achievements made should not be under-valued. In 1970 Nepal had the 12th highest child mortality rate in the world. By last year, we had moved ahead of 50 other countries, to rank 62nd. During this period U5MR went down by nearly 80% from 250 to 51.

Four decades ago, 400,000 children were born every year, but 100,000 of them died before reaching their 5th birthday. Last year, 732,000 children were born, but less than 40,000 died.

That certainly is progress. It is all the more remarkable that Nepal made great strides in reducing the number of child deaths even in the middle of a violent conflict in the last decade. Thanks to this progress, Nepal is on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal for reducing under-5 mortality.

In our life time, we have seen dreaded diseases like smallpox and polio eradicated; deaths due to measles drastically reduced; goiter disappear, and immunization services for children becoming virtually universal.

As this beautiful booklet, Four decades of UNICEF Partnership in Nepal, shows children of Nepal today are healthier, more educated, and more knowledgeable about the world, than in any previous generation.

Forty years ago, barely a quarter of school-age children went to primary education. Girls going to school were a rare sight. Today 90 percent of children enroll in primary school, including a majority of girls. There has been much progress in women’s health and education, which is so vital for the well-being of children.

Half-way through the 4 decades of UNICEF in Nepal, two extraordinary events took place in 1990 – Nepal’s first Jana-andolan that ushered in democracy, and the coming to force of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Both these events gave great impetus to the cause of children. Whereas earlier programmes for children were designed on a needs-based basis, sometimes even as a charitable response to the plight of children, a rights-based approach came into vogue following the advent of democracy and application of the CRC.

While UNICEF continued to help tackle some of the age-old problems of illness, illiteracy and malnutrition in Nepal with some success, three new problems that did not exist four decades ago surfaced and worsened in the past two decades: HIV/AIDS, trafficking and abuse of children on a massive scale, and a terrible civil war that led to new forms of violence and exploitation of children.

So in addition to the traditional sectoral programmes in health and education, water and sanitation, UNICEF helped formulate innovative programmes to deal with these new problems to protect children against HIV/AIDS, trafficking and sexual abuse, violence and exploitation of various kinds, including the impact of armed conflict on children.

The Decentralized Community Action for Children and Women (DACAW) became a flagship programme promoting a participatory, rights-based approach for empowering women and children.

Today, community-based women’s federations and para-legal committees, and school-based child clubs are revolutionizing awareness and action to combat domestic violence, to promote sanitation, and to heal the wounds of Nepal’s fratricidal violent conflict on children.

UNICEF Nepal has been a pioneer in the creative use of communications in support of programmes for children using films and cartoons, radio and television, education and entertainment. As a result, progress for children has accelerated despite many challenges, and UNICEF has become a house-hold name, a true child-friendly UN presence in Nepal.

Congratulations, members of the UNICEF family in Nepal. You can truly be proud of your great contribution.

Dear friends,

As we look ahead to the next 4 decades, I see a bright future for the children of this country, provided we Nepalis are able to overcome our self-destructive orgy of hyper-politicization peppered with a most un-Nepali ugly culture of violence that prevails in our country today.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose 20th anniversary we celebrate today, can be our guide to build a peaceful, just and prosperous future for Nepal’s children.

The Convention has 4 overarching core principles: non-discrimination; best interest of the child; right to survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. These 4 core principles can indeed be the very foundation for building a New Nepal.

We have made much progress for children in the past 4 decades, but unfortunately, that progress has been uneven. A good news, for example, is that 90 % of children go to primary school today. But the bad news is that the 10 percent of children who are not enrolled in primary schools are from the historically, geographically, economically and socially deprived and marginalized communities.

Only 38 % of children from the indigenous communities, 18 % of Dalits and a mere 1% of disabled children are enrolled in primary schools. This is totally unacceptable in today’s Nepal that aspires to be an inclusive democracy.

The guiding principle of non-discrimination and universality in the CRC requires us to make sure that we are not satisfied with high coverage on average but that we go for universal and equitable progress, taking special measures for children who are likely to be disadvantaged.

We have made much progress in child survival, but a little child dies in Nepal every 12 minutes; 120 children die every day; 44,000 every year. This too is unacceptable, because many of these deaths can be readily prevented.

But death is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind these deaths lie much larger number of children who are sick, malnourished, disabled, and exploited.

Consider this: 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child’s life. Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child enters school.

Like all other countries that have achieved rapid human development, we must invest heavily in maternal, newborn and child health and especially to combat our unacceptably high levels of child malnutrition, and to promote early child development.

This is the essence of the Convention’s core principle of the right to life, survival and development.

In today’s world children are not only to be seen, but their views and voices must be heard. In UNICEF’s experience globally, we have found that children themselves can be key actors and effective partners for their own development and the development of their societies.

Young people today are amazingly resourceful and we must not under-value and under-utilize their extraordinary talents, enthusiasm and creativity.

We’ve seen it time and time again that child participation works. Children have proven that when they are involved, they can make a huge difference – for themselves and for their communities.

Participation is a passport to belonging…belonging as a child, as a student, as a young adult, as a nation-builder and a citizen of the world. Let us give our young people their place – in shaping their present and a role in building a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous New Nepal, and the world that they will inherit from us tomorrow.

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society like ours, the values of democracy and respect for the rights and dignity of all peoples, in their great diversity, must be inculcated in the minds and hearts of children from their early childhood.

In our country that is so wounded by conflict and divided by poverty, let us embrace and empower our children so they can build better present and future for themselves.We, adults have made a mess of our society. Let us be confident and wise enough to entrust and guide our children to shape their own future.

This is the essence of CRC’s core principle of respect for the views of the child and right to participation in accordance with a child’s evolving capacity.

Finally, in everything we do, if we are not sure what is the right thing to do, always ask one question: is it in the best interest of our children? If not, don’t do it.

So, the next time there is a debate in the in the Constituent Assembly on how to formulate a particular article in the new Constitution, ask yourself which alternative would be in the best interest of our children.

The next time the National Planning Commission is struggling to decide which programmes to give a higher priority, please ask yourself what would be in the best interest of children.

And the next time our politicians and trade unions are tempted to call a strike, a chakka jam, and other agitation in pursuit of some worthy political objectives, please ask yourself, is this action in the best interest of children?

And please remember our solemn collective commitment to treat children as a zone of peace and keep schools, hospitals, health centres and places of worship off- limits for violence and political agitation.

Dear friends,

Mother Nature has bestowed on the children of Nepal a beautiful landscape, bountiful supply of clean air, fresh water, green forests, fertile land and an amazing ecological diversity that can be the source of great prosperity. We have no external enemies and our internal differences are readily manageable.

But our politicians have saddled the children of this country with the burden of exaggerated ideological conflict. They try to pollute the minds of our children by dividing Nepalis into progressive and regressive, feudal and modern, patriotic and anti-national.

Instead of searching for what unites us all as Nepalis – in our rich cultural diversity – our children are being encouraged to be backward-looking, narrow-minded and chauvinistic.

Let us stop this hyper-politicization that is destroying the fabric of Nepali society and compromising the future of Nepali children.

We all have many ideas for building a New Nepal. Naturally we are keen to see all of our ideas and wishes implemented immediately.

But let us remember this. Some of our good ideas can wait, until we sort out our political system and governance structures. But children cannot wait.

Children have only one chance to grow. If they miss that chance, they can be doomed for life.

We have wonderful international organizations like UNICEF ready to help us in a non-partisan, non-political manner keeping the best interest of children as their only guiding principle.

As we celebrate 20th anniversary of the CRC in the world and 40th anniversary of UNICEF in Nepal, let us commit ourselves to building a New Nepal where safeguarding the best interest of all our children will be our only ideology.

Honourable President, Ladies and gentlemen,

Today is also Universal Children’s Day, which millions of people around the world, particularly people of faith and goodwill are celebrating as a “World Day of Prayer and Action for Children”. Certainly the children of Nepal need all of our prayers and action so that they can grow up to their full potential in a peaceful and prosperous Nepal. With that noble objective, I would like to ask you all to stand up for a moment of silence in solidarity for the children of Nepal.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations)