Today’s children face unprecedented and complex challenges, from climate threats to online misinformation. But by working together with organisations, world leaders have the tools to open doors of opportunity for every child, writes Henrietta H. Fore, executive director, UNICEF
As the leader of the world’s largest children’s agency, I frequently sit down with children and young people from around the world. The issues they raise – such as education, poverty, inequality and discrimination – should surprise no one, as those have been multigenerational challenges UNICEF has fought for decades.
But I have also been struck by the new challenges they mention: Prolonged conflicts. Climate change. Online safety. Misinformation.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history – turned 30 last year. To mark the occasion, I wrote my first ever ‘open letter to the world’s children’. In it, I sound the alarm about eight global shifts that were unimaginable 30 years ago, and that we will continue to endure this year and beyond.
Here is what is at stake:
• Our planet: Children need clean water, clean air and a safe climate. The climate crisis has the potential to undermine every one of children’s basic rights to life, health, safety and security.
This current crisis can undo most of the gains made in child survival and development over the past 30 years.
• Children’s lives: One in four children is likely to live, and learn, in conflict and disaster zones. Children have always been the first victims of war. Today, the number of countries experiencing conflict is the highest it has ever been since the adoption of the Convention in 1989.
• Children’s mental health: Self-harm is now the third leading cause of death for adolescents aged 15 to 19. Teens today smoke less, drink less and generally take fewer risks than previous generations, yet child and adolescent mental illness and self-harm are on the rise.
• The safety and well-being of millions of migrant children: More than 30 million children have migrated from their place of birth. For many, migration is propelled by a drive for a better life. But for too many children, migration is not a positive choice but an urgent necessity that takes them on perilous journeys across deserts, oceans and armed borders, encountering violence, abuse and exploitation along the way.
• Online misinformation: The next generation is growing up in a digital environment saturated with misinformation online, making it difficult to know who and what to trust. Parents around the world have been misled by lies about vaccines on social media and messaging apps, prompting a worrisome resurgence of measles in countries such as France, India, the Philippines and Samoa.
• Children’s status before their governments: A quarter of children may never have an official birth certificate or qualify for a passport. If their parents are stateless, or from a persecuted or marginalised community, or simply if they live in a poor remote region, they may never be given an identity or birth certificate. They may even be denied citizenship or have their citizenship stripped from them.
• Future jobs: There are more than 1.8 billion young people aged 10 to 24 in the world, one of the largest cohorts in human history. Failing to equip youth with the tools for success in today’s global economy would be a grave injustice to them and a short-sighted waste of human capital.
• Children’s online privacy: Today, more than one in three children globally are regular internet users. Whether they know it or not, as those children go about their daily online lives, browsing social media, using search engines, e-commerce and government platforms, playing games, downloading apps and using mobile geolocation services, a digital footprint composed of thousands of pieces of data about them is accumulating. Every child’s digital footprint must be protected.
These are complex challenges and UNICEF is working around the world to advocate for and protect children’s rights.
But we cannot do it alone. As world leaders discuss and deliberate specific policies and interventions – at home in their national capitals, together at their virtual summits and on the world stage – they need to ask themselves: how will these actions affect children? Will they make their futures brighter or darker? Will they open doors of opportunity for them – or close these doors forever? Will they foster peace – or deepen global divisions and mistrust?
As leaders, there is no greater fundamental responsibility than leaving the world a better place than you found it.
UNICEF is here to help carry out this vital task and shape a brighter future for every child, everywhere.