Unicef: 70 years and counting
There is something about a child against whom odds are stacked that never fails to move me — whether it is a child who falls on the wrong side of the law or one who lives in fear every day because of armed conflict, or another who drops out of school because of poor health and nutrition.
Children should never have to be in such circumstances. I joined the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in 2006 as representative because it allowed me to do something about this unacceptable situation.
Unicef was the first UN agency to operate in the Philippines. After the devastation of World War II, Unicef signed a Basic Cooperation Agreement with the Philippine government on Nov. 20, 1948, to provide emergency relief to children.
To date, this humanitarian mandate continues. Unicef would be among the first responders during disasters, providing basic needs and healthcare and safe spaces for children, notably in big calamities such as Typhoon “Ike” in the 1980s and Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013.
In 1979, we began to move beyond child survival and adopted the holistic development of the child approach — encompassing health and nutrition, education and child protection — through the signing of the first Country Programme of Cooperation with the government. In the decades that followed, we advocated for changes in policies and the adoption of strategic and comprehensive plans and programs for children. We lobbied for exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the child and heralded the enactment of the Philippine Milk Code, which touts the superiority of breast milk over infant formula.
When the Philippines was declared free of polio in 2000, the government and Unicef reached a milestone. For years, we ran nationwide immunization drives against various childhood diseases, and have succeeded in increasing the number of immunized children all over the country.
When the Philippines ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, it further strengthened our resolve to protect, respect and fulfill the rights of Filipino children. It renewed our hopes that the Philippines, as state party to the CRC and principal duty-bearer, would work with us to progressively realize every child’s fundamental rights to survival, development, protection and participation. We worked with government institutions, like the Council for the Welfare of Children, and expanded partnerships with civil society organizations to make the minimum standards of the CRC a reality.
But the past decades have not been without challenge! We made significant headway in facilitating the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act in 2006, with Unicef successfully lobbying for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 9 to 15. Unfortunately, until today, there continue to be attempts to lower the age to 12 years or lower. We still have to remind decision-makers that such moves to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility are against the best
interests of Filipino children.
Much work remains to be done. Two in 3 children experience physical violence, while 1 in 4 experience sexual violence. Online sexual exploitation of children is the leading cybercrime in the Philippines. A third of the country’s children live below the poverty line. There is an increasing number of children who are underweight and stunted. Teenage pregnancy is on the rise, while access to reproductive health services remains limited.
Unicef@70 is a time to celebrate our achievements for children. It is also an opportunity to renew our shared commitment to never give up until every Filipino child is nurtured, protected and able to reach his or her full potential.
Now more than ever, as we and the Philippine government prepare for the eighth Country Programme of Cooperation, Unicef remains a caring, effective, present and relevant organization for
every Filipino child.
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Lotta Sylwander is the country representative of Unicef Philippines.
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