Ranks countries in descending order of their estimated 1999 under five mortality rate, a critical indicator of the well-being of children

“It is deeply ironic that despite widespread concern about the lack of sustainable development in numerous countries around the world, government leaders, policy makers and development agents seem blinded to the one investment opportunity with almost guaranteed returns ‘€“ ensuring children start a good life.”

This is how the United Nation Children’€™s Fund (UNICEF) summarises “The State of the World’€™s Children” in its 2001 report.

“By neglecting or stealing from children now, leaders plunder their countries’€™ future and entrench vice and poverty.”

The report said governments must or should know what has been confirmed by a growing body of knowledge: that the most critical stage of a child’€™s development is the early years, and it provides the best opportunity for investing in human beings.

In the first 36 months of a child’€™s life, brain connections multiply and the motor that will fire the child’€™s thinking and behaviour patterns for the rest of his or her life is formed.

As children learn to speak, sense, walk and reason, the value system against which they will judge good and bad, fair and unfair is also formed.

This is the most vulnerable period in a person’€™s life and one that demands the most care from society.

This is the central theme of “The State of the World’€™s Children 2001. It argues that ensuring a child’€™s rights is a process that must begin very early, even before the child is born, because investing early in a child’€™s health, education and nutrition is a relatively efficient and effective way of guaranteeing positive future returns through savings on health and other services.

The report reveals that about 129-million children were born last year while almost 11-million children under five died in the same year, most from easily preventable causes.

In 1998, the top five killers were peri-natal conditions (20%), respiratory infections (18%), diarrhoeal diseases (17%), vaccine preventable diseases (15%) and malaria (7%).

More than 20% of primary school aged children in developing countries were not in school, while a staggering 20-million children have been displaced by conflict.

More than 10-million children under 15 have lost their mother or both parents to AIDS.

About 177-million children are stunted mainly because of malnutrition in pregnant women.

Close to 15-million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year.

The report recognised that the rights of children could not be realised if the health and well-being of women were not addressed.

Women who are sickly, hungry, oppressed and discriminated against cannot have the ability, willingness and motivation to nurture their children adequately. “This is particularly true in the areas of health and education of mother,” the report said.

The report said that for early childhood strategies to work, each country had to do four, equally essential things:

Continue to make child survival a priority;

Assure that surviving children are healthy and possess the skills to thrive and to live full and productive lives;

Prepare parents for their pivotal role in childcare and build the capacities of communities to support them;

Create a society that is free from violence and discrimination at all levels and that values the lives and contributions of children and women.

In the report’€™s foreword, former president Nelson Mandela and his partner Graca Machel, a United Nations expert on armed conflict, deliver “our promise to the world’€™s children”.

“Now that I am an old man, it is children who inspire me. My dear young people: I see the light in your eyes, the energy in your bodies and the hope that is in your spirit. I know it is you, not I, who will make the future. It is you, not I, who will fix our wrongs and carry forward all that is right with the world,” Mandela wrote.

Machel added her commitment: “To the children of the world, I would like to say this: You are my life’€™s work. Fighting for your dignity and freedom and protection has given the best meaning of my life.

“And I promise not to rest until these things (AIDS, war) are the stuff of old fairy tales rather than your days’€™ reality.” ‘€“ Health-e News Service (www.health-e.org.za)