Children and the Role of Religions

Remarks by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director
At the Conference of the Global Network of Religions for Children
Report on the UN Special Session on Children and the Role of Religions
12 May 2002

Venerable leaders of the world’s religious and spiritual communities and members of the Global Network of Religions for Children.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak to you today, right after the successful conclusion of the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Children.

Please allow me to take this opportunity to pay tribute to your young but most important Global Network of Religions for Children, established two years ago under the visionary leadership of the Rev. Takeyasu Miyamoto, Leader of Myochikai and President of the Arigatou Foundation.
I also wish to acknowledge and congratulate all the individual members of the GNRC for your vision and commitment to promote the well-being of children.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
All the great religions of the world preach love, peace, solidarity and compassion.  Yet, in today’s world, far too many crimes are committed, hatred is spread, injustice is justified, and intolerance inculcated often in the name of religion.

This state of affairs is simply unacceptable, and contributes to a vicious cycle of intolerance and conflict.
We also have far too many instances where, instead of teaching children to appreciate and value diversity, children are taught to see their own religion or faith as superior to others.
Yet in this increasingly materialistic world, children need to have some balance, an ethical-moral value system, with the vision of a greater good to which they can contribute through service and solidarity, peace and tolerance.

Therefore it is so wonderful that the GNRC has been established with the express purpose of, as stated by the Rev. Miyamoto in his address to the Special Session on Children: supporting global ethics education for children; developing spirituality in children as part of quality education, and strengthening efforts in poverty eradication.
We need things that unite us rather than divide us, the common cause for children can be that uniting force.

As the GNRC develops its plan of action for the future, I would submit to you that the agenda for creating a world fit for children that has just been adopted by the Special Session on Children is a fitting complement to your founding principles.

But as some of you many not have attended the Special Session on Children, let me try to summarize for you some of the major achievements and memorable highlights.

First: this gathering, which was the first time that the General Assembly met to focus on children’s issues, brought together the greatest number of world leaders in the setting of a UN special session. We had some 50 Heads of State or Government, and many times more leaders from civil society, including religious leaders, parliamentary leaders, corporate leaders, and celebrities including UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, all of who gave the Special Session the character of a summit of leadership for children.

NGO representation was very high, with over 1,700 representatives from some 700 NGOs of 117 countries, half of them grass-roots activists from developing countries.

Another distinguishing feature was that nearly 400 children fully took part in the General Assembly session, alongside adults, as official members of delegations representing Governments as well as non-Governmental organizations.  They participated in all the key events including at the plenary of the General Assembly, bringing messages and requests from the three-day Children’s Forum that preceded the Special Session.

It was a substantively very rich Special Session, with over a hundred supporting events.  There were two categories of events: one garnered specific commitments from key constituencies such as religious leaders, who issued on 7 May their “Commitment of the World’s Religions to Children: A Multi-Religious Declaration”.  The second category of events shared best practices and lessons learned with a view to enhancing implementation of the Plan of Action emanating from the Special Session.

For those who may not be familiar with the agreed outcome document of the Special Session on Children, entitled “A World Fit for Children”, I will give a very quick overview.

The first part of the document, the Declaration, contains a reaffirmation by leaders to fulfil past commitments made for children and to protect and promote children’s rights.  Governments call on all members of society to join in a global movement for children and uphold the ten points of the Rallying Call for Children.

The first part of the Plan of Action, on “Creating a world fit for children”, sets out three outcomes for children that need to be achieved through commitment and partnerships at all levels of society to lay the foundation for such a world. These are:

(a)     A good start to life;

(b)    Access to a quality basic education, including primary education that is compulsory and available free to all; and

(c)     Ample opportunity for adolescents to develop their individual capacities in safe and supportive environment.

The second part of the Plan of Action, “Goals, strategies and actions”, reaffirms the many goals and targets relevant to children endorsed by the major world summits and conferences of the past decade, including the UN Millennium Summit.

Within the framework of those goals and targets and to achieve the desired outcomes for children, four key areas of focus for children are proposed in the outcome document, as the most urgent and strategically important priorities in addressing the needs of children:

Promoting healthy lives;

Providing quality education;

Protecting children from abuse, exploitation and violence; and

Combating HIV/AIDS and the risks it poses to children, their well-being and rights.

To achieve goals and targets within these four areas of focus, significant additional human, financial and material resources are required at all levels. Thus the section on Mobilizing Resources calls for the pursuit of agreed global targets and actions.  Suggested means of doing so include the 20/20 approach and the allocation by developed countries of 0.7 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) for overall development assistance, as well as mobilization at the national level, including through the reduction of military expenditures.

The document concludes with a section on Follow-up Actions and Assessment, to facilitate the implementation of actions committed to in the document, and to ensure a process of monitoring, periodic reviews and reporting.

Venerable friends,
We all know that the success of the Special Session will be determined by its follow-up.
So, how can the world’s religions participate, and use their assets and capacities effectively for children?
There are five key ways

1)      First, please help communicate the key points of “A World Fit for Children” to your constituencies.  Religious leaders are by nature expert communicators, opinion leaders and social mobilizers, accustomed to translating complex texts into understandable messages, and we look to you to take the lead in this regard.

2)      Second, work with your communities to identify priorities of relevance to them.  I stress the importance of doing this exercise jointly, so that there is common understanding and agreement on what should be considered a priority.  I recall that in Haiti, where I served as UNICEF Representative many years ago, there was an archbishop in Cap Haitien who took the initiative of asking both clergy and general public what they thought should be the role and responsibilities of priests.  The results showed that there were major differences in perception-while the priests thought their role should be to inspire and provide religious guidance to the parishioners, the people felt that priests should take up the causes of fighting inequity, and play a much greater role in poverty eradication.

3)      Third is for religious leaders to undertake joint problem-solving with their communities.  As religious leaders are well-respected and hold great moral assets, they have the influence to convene concerned stakeholders, analyse together what is holding back progress for children, and mobilize towards the overcoming of obstacles.

4)      The fourth is the very obvious one of taking action, in a manner that embodies principles and priority actions for children, such as the ten points of the Say Yes for Children campaign.

5)      Finally, and most importantly, continue working directly with children, treating them as resources and partners, not problems and inculcating in them the true teachings of the world’s great religions – love, peace, tolerance, solidarity and compassion.

As His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, said, “It’s time for elders to listen to the child’s voice.  You see, in the child’s mind there is no demarcation of different nations, no demarcation of different social systems of ideology.  Children know in their minds that all children are the same, all human beings are the same.  So, from that viewpoint, their minds are more unbiased.  When people get older, it is then that they start to say, “our nation,” “our religion,” “our system.”  Once that demarcation occurs, then people don’t bother much about what happens to others.  It’s easier to introduce social responsibility into a child’s mind.

Thus children are the path to a more just, peaceful and tolerant society. Let us do our utmost to ensure that children are raised and treated as partners, to the extent possible in accordance with their evolving capacities.
I wish all success to the Global Network of Religions for Children, and look forward to finding ways to join our efforts so that our common goals for children may be achieved.

Thank you.