Established over 70 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly, UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) has since worked to “defend the rights and improve the lives of children and their families, across 190 countries and territories.” At the time of its inception, UNICEF was formed to assist European children in need living in post-World War II society. Similarly, the organization still focuses its current efforts on disadvantaged youth living in dangerous or unstable environments, promoting universal education through the primary level, and offering some degree of medical care.
Milen Kidane* serves as a Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF in the Eastern & Southern Africa (ESA) Regional Office of Nairobi, Kenya. (Full disclosure: Milen Kidane is my aunt and the sister of my mother Aster Kidane, a Lower School teacher.) Kidane first joined the organization as a consultant, conducting an assessment of unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) in Eritrea, her home country, following the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998-2000. Since joining, she has worked with UNICEF as a Child Protection Specialist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Trinidad and Tobago. Whereas most people instinctively try to flee war-torn countries and cities considered extremely dangerous and unstable, Kidane travels towards the trouble, towards where help is needed.
In particular, Kidane is “passionate about working in UNICEF’s Child Protection Section because of its commitment to protect children against all forms of violence, exploitation, and abuse in development and humanitarian contexts.” She does her part “by strengthening child protection systems and by promoting positive social practices to prevent and respond to violence, exploitation, and abuse.” She is “inspired and motivated by UNICEF’S mandate to advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs, and to expand their opportunities to maximize their potential,” Kidane is a strong advocate of UNICEF’s research and work.
From where she currently works, Kidane covers child protection components in 21 country programs, from Eritrea to South Africa, including the island states of Comoros and Madagascar. Between her unusually dangerous work environments and her direct impact on the well-being of children in many different countries, Kidane has learned a great deal about the role of UNICEF.
From 2000-2015, the United Nations worked to achieve their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (“quantified goals for addressing extreme poverty” that guided the organization’s work during the time period). For UNICEF, the MDGs focused on improving maternal and newborn health during and around childbirth. To their credit, “more healthy children are being born and surviving their first four or five years of life,” says Kidane. In addition, universal primary education was one goal of the MDGs. Until the turn of the century, the percentage of people with a complete primary education was stagnant; it hovered around 55%. The implementation of MDGs saw that percentage climb uphill, and, according to Kidane, by 2012 the numbers had reached near 70%. Evidently, substantial progress had been made on this front, but there is still work to be done to improve and encourage universal primary education.
Traditional gender roles are still enforced and celebrated in specific parts of the world, meaning boys are more likely to remain in their education system through secondary school and perhaps beyond. On the other hand, in some cultures girls are prepared at a young age to become child-brides, like in the case of one girl living in rural northern India. To have time to learn the duties required of a child-bride, girls are forced out of the school system just prior to secondary school.
Female genital mutilation and other harmful practices, detrimental to girls’ health, are still widespread for a variety of regionally dependant reasons. These actions remain recurring threats for young girls in developing countries striving for more a comprehensive education.
In 2015, the United Nations began to establish their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help govern and guide the organization’s work through 2030. In incoming UN President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson’s General Assembly address on February 8, 2017, he advocated for child education through the World’s Largest Lesson–a UNICEF-sponsored program that helps bring the “SDGs into classrooms around the world.” In calling on world leaders to educate the children, he touched on UNICEF’s priority for the SDGs. According to UNICEF’s predictions, the “global child population will increase over 60% in the next 35 years.”
With this statistic in mind, UNICEF has convinced the UN to shift greater importance towards child protection and focus on reducing inequality. Additionally, as urbanization spreads throughout the Eastern and Southern Africa Region (ESAR), with trends only predicted to continue rising through 2050, SDG 11 outlines “Making cities, inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.”
While urbanization is the direct issue being discussed, the larger, related topic is immigration. The increasingly controversial argument over the legality and impact of different forms of immigration is one that should be immediately addressed. In the nature of mankind, “migration has always been a way of life,” according to Kidane. Historically, human beings have migrated for thousands of years due to changing climates, limited food supply, and water accessibility. For livestock herders, migrating meant following their livelihood; for merchants, migrating meant better trading opportunities .
Across the globe, the issue–independent of location and culture–UNICEF is most commonly associated with is child care. UNICEF plans to emphasize reducing child poverty and eradicating extreme poverty–defined as “people living on less than $1.25 per day”.
In order for UNICEF to be successful in its mission to prioritize the safety and social security of children, especially among ESAR countries, the organization must engage the national governments involved to “place children’s rights high on the policy and budgeting agendas.” The cooperation and assistance of the countries’ governments is crucial, because without it, UNICEF does not have the influence and financial means to implement their mission throughout the region.
To gain government cooperation, both ethical and social progression arguments need to be made. According to Kidane, “Data show that eliminating child abuse will directly improve the overall economic growth of a nation.” A generation of youth that grows up without feeling the sting of abuse and exploitation will be far more “healthy, productive, and functioning members of society.” When governments see the issue of child poverty in terms of “fundamental development and national growth,” instead of exclusively a social rights issue, that is when words can become actions and actions will spark progress.
As an impactful, social progress organization, UNICEF constantly works to improve its efficiency. Perhaps not taking on such a wide scope of issues may help the organization leave a deeper, longer-lasting footprint in certain areas; however, finding programs to take a step back from will be hard to justify, considering most of UNICEF’s work is absolutely necessary and cutbacks could have consequences. Another idea to improve the organization’s effective reach would be to increase its effort to educate about the work it does. Following this approach, UNICEF could see an increase in privately-funded investments. As it currently stands, UNICEF is an organization that does it all. It’s global impact is invaluable and literally life-saving for some families.
*While Kidane is employed by UNICEF her ideas and opinions are her own and do not reflect those of the UNICEF organization as a whole.
All images courtesy of UNICEF.