U.N. Declaration on Children Advocates Improved Education andHealth Services

By Ellen Flax — October 10, 1990 4 min read

United Nations--More than 70 world leaders convened here for an unprecedented meeting on the global condition of children have pledged to fight the hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy that plague the world’s poorest children.

The World Summit for Children, held here late last month, marks the first time heads of state have agreed on a plan of action to improve child-survival rates in both developing and industrialized countries. According to unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, about 15 million children under the age of 5 in the developing world die each year of disease and malnutrition.

In a declaration and a set of goals signed at the end of the two-day summit, the leaders also pledged to improve access to primary and early-childhood education, as well as to increase adult-literacy rates.

“The children of the world are innocent, vulnerable, and dependent,’' the “World Declaration on the Survival, Protection, and Development of Children” states. “They are also curious, active, and full of hope. Their time should be one of joy and peace, of playing, learning, and growing.”

“But for many children,” the declaration states, “the reality of childhood is altogether different.”

The goals adopted by the heads of state, including President Bush, are both ambitious and attainable, the documents state. They also reflect the fact that many common health problems, such as measles and diarrhea, can be inexpensively prevented or treated.

Among the major goals for the year 2000 included in the documents are: reducing by one-third the mortality rate for children under age 5; reducing by one-half the number of women who die in childbirth each year; lowering by one-half the percentage of children who suffer from severe and moderate malnutrition; ensuring universal access to clean drinking water and to sanitary waste disposal; and eliminating polio.

Doubts in the U.S.

The world leaders agreed that each nation may adjust the goals to suit its national needs, and will be responsible for monitoring its progress toward meeting them.

Some question, however, whether the United States will be able to meet the un goals.

“It’s going to be very difficult for the U.S. to meet the goals,” Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the Children’s Defense Fund, said last week. “We’re already far behind the rest of the industrialized world in how we treat our children.”

Others note that the United States is one of only a handful of nations that have not signed or moved to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was unanimously adopted by the un General Assembly last year. The convention, which establishes a comprehensive set of legal norms for the protection of children, is opposed by some conservatives in this country because it does not prohibit abortion and calls for the elimination of the death penalty for juvenile offenders. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1989.)

Although unicef estimates that meeting these goals could cost as much as $2.5 billion a year by the late 1990’s, there was no commitment by any of the world leaders at the conference to pay for the immunization, education, or nutrition programs outlined in the documents.

“A better world for children is within our reach, but as many heads of state pointed out today, it is still to early to say whether it is within our grasp,” said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, a co-chairman of the conference.

Although the main focus of the summit was on improving child and maternal health and survival in developing countries, summit participants acknowledged that further progress cannot be made without an educated populace.

Major educational goals for 2000 outlined in the documents include:

Expanding early-childhood-development activities.

Ensuring that 80 percent of the primary-school-age population in every country receive a primary education, through formal or non-formal schooling. Special emphasis should be placed, the goals said, on reducing the educational disparities between boys and girls.

Reducing the 1990 adult-illiteracy rate by one-half.

Addressing the summit, Mr. Bush said it was an “outrage” that 100 million children worldwide are not attending school, and called for an end to abusive child-labor practices.

“Let us strive to make education the primary work of all children,” he said.

Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan, meanwhile, also stressed the importance of education in preventing health problems and in encouraging economic development.

“National development can take place only when there is education,” he said. “It is no exaggeration to say that education constituted the very foundation of Japan’s development.”

To make education more effective, especially in industrialized countries, the Japanese president recommended that teachers be accorded higher status. He, as well as other participants, also stressed that educational efforts should focus on women, because nearly two-thirds of all illiterates are female, and because mothers tend to have a much greater educational influence on children than do fathers.

“As the saying goes,” said President Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara of Gambia, “when you educate a man, you educate an individual. But when you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as U.N. Declaration on Children Advocates Improved Education andHealth Services