IT'S all in the name of children. This Sunday - exactly six days
before the United Nations World Summit for Children begins Sept. 29
in New York - concerned citizens in 78 countries will hold 2,500
candlelight vigils. From an Ethiopian refugee camp to a meeting held
along the site of the Berlin Wall, the message will be the same: The
plight of needy children deserves a higher priority on the global
Co-chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and
supported by a variety of organizations from CARE to the Children's
Defense Fund, the vigils are also intended as a pointed reminder to
national leaders that children around the world have a large and
growing constituency. "We're trying to mobilize people to care and
to expect action," says vigil coordinator Sam Harris.
Nearly 80 presidents (including President Bush), prime ministers,
and kings are scheduled to attend the summit. It will mark one of
the largest high-level gatherings ever to focus on a single subject
and will last less than 24 hours.
Yet Canada, Egypt, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, and Sweden - the six
governments initiating the summit - expect it to be a working
meeting, more substance than symbol. A declaration on the rights of
the child is ready for signature. So is a plan of action, including
such goals as reducing the infant-mortality rate by one-third by the
Child survival is the top United Nations concern. Each day some
40,000 youngsters under five die from malnutrition and disease. Most
experts say the majority of deaths are easily preventable by access
to clean water and low-cost vaccines, oral rehydration salts, and
vitamins. The problem is widely viewed as less one of money and
technical knowledge than of political commitment and will.
Yet the challenge is enormous. Only half the children in
developing countries have access to clean drinking water, according
to UNICEF (United Nations Childrens Fund) data. Forty percent suffer
from malnutrition. Poverty, illiteracy, and war compound such
problems: The continuing war in Afghanistan is one reason why that
country leads all others in infant mortality rates, according to
1988 UNICEF data.
Also, nearly 100 million school-age children have never stepped
inside a classroom. The majority of these nonstudents are female,
often discriminated against from infant feeding on up through
employment. Nations feel the repercussions in lower life expectancy
and greater malnutrition among women.
Tightly pinched national budgets often provide little help. Many
developing countries now spend half their revenue paying interest on
debts or maintaining military strength. In many developing
countries, health and education spending declined during the 1980s.
Poverty, malnutrition, and ill health are advancing again in these
countries after years of steady retreat, according to UNICEF. That
reversal is one reason UNICEF executive director James Grant first
floated the idea of a summit in that group's 1989 "State of the
World's Children" report. Children must have "first call," says Mr.
Grant, in terms of a nation's concern and its resources - whether
times are good or bad.
Industrialized countries are not just part of the solution: They
share the problem. UNICEF spokesman John Usher notes there is
evidence of a resurgence of sweatshops - often employing children in
under poor working conditions - in developed countries for the first
time since the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, 1 of
every 5 children live in households below the poverty line. In New
York City, 2 of every 5 youngsters grow up poor. Also, the US ranks
only 20th - Finland is first - among nations with the lowest infant
mortality rate. Despite steady economic growth, the US and Great
Britain now have double the number of homeless they had a decade
ago; 1 in 4 is a child. In Canada, 1 of every 6 youngsters goes to
bed hungry every night, notes Yves Fortier, Canada's Ambassador to
the UN. …