70 years of Unicef | Inquirer Opinion

70 years of Unicef

/ 05:00 AM December 15, 2018

If one wanted to bring together all the children who have reached adulthood because UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) opened an office in the Philippines on Nov. 20, 1948, it would take more than one large province to accommodate them.

Now celebrating 70 years of service to the Philippines, Unicef continues to work as an energetic partner with government and NGOs, media, academics and the private sector to make a difference for children. Gathering evidence on children’s access to their rights of survival, development, protection and participation, Unicef and its Philippine partners stress outcomes and impact. It has come a long way since its 1960s supply and project orientation to today’s systems approaches that emphasize evidence and output-based programming.

Over the years, the Country Program of Cooperation has focused on children in lowland farming and fishing villages mired in poverty, in upland farming and mining clusters tucked away along with indigenous communities on remote mountain slopes, and in densely packed urban informal settlements regularly facing demolition, eviction and distant relocation.

Always down-to-earth and practical, Unicef’s doer approach to reach the most excluded sits well with its partners. Together, they have tackled malnourished under-fives; breastfeeding promotion in the first thousand days; maternal health and vaccination drives; tetanus and polio eradication; early child development; street children; child victims of abuse, violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking and neglect; school and cyberbullying; indigenous children; children in conflict with the law; child labor; children with disabilities; youth with HIV/AIDS; decommissioning child soldiers; emergency responses to children affected by disasters; and zones of peace in Mindanao, and internally displaced families returning home.


Intertwined with these are underlying programs in health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and nutrition. Looming additions to the agenda include climate change linked to disaster risk reduction and management exacerbated by continuing poverty, as well as growing socioeconomic disparities and discrimination. A hefty agenda indeed!

As a development organization, Unicef must necessarily keep abreast of new ideas permeating the societies in which it works. Nowhere has this brought more controversy than in the arena of women. The organization came under criticism globally in the 1970s for its portrayal of women solely as mothers. That image sidelined women’s real multifaceted identity in favor of the mother-child dyad immortalized in Unicef’s logo.

Meanwhile, women’s movements in the Philippines, aided by supportive male colleagues, were lobbying to get path-breaking legislation passed in Congress. Among the noteworthy results were Republic Act (RA) No. 7192 (1992), which integrated women as full and equal partners of men in development and national building; RA 8353 (1997), defining rape as a crime against persons, including marital rape; RA 9262 (2004), which tackled violence against women and their children; RA 10354 (2012), on responsible parenthood and reproductive health; and RA 9710 (2009), the Magna Carta of Women. Could Unicef not follow suit?

As Filipino women pressed gender discrimination issues and demanded equality, development and peace, women staff in Unicef turned their attention to the implications for Unicef programs. If women were to be regarded not only as mothers but also as women fulfilling multiple roles as economic providers, farmers, professionals, community organizers, local leaders and more, should Unicef not venture beyond the mother-child fixation to support that diversity? That could include women’s income-generating programs, women constructing and repairing community water pumps for improved sanitation and clean water, and educational programs that build up women’s multiple strengths.


Heated debates on these issues came to a climax at several UN World Conferences on Women beginning in Mexico City in 1975, and, in periodic five-year follow-ups, in Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995. Filipino women, often beneficiaries of Unicef travel and per diem support, sparkled in these debates. With their African, Latin American and African-American sisters, our NGO delegates vigorously challenged the Western-associated definitions of women that reflected white middle-class backgrounds.

Articulate Filipino women argued that while gender equality between women and men was indeed crucial, that conviction had to come to terms with the reality of masses of women and men in poverty. Neither were Filipino women advocates willing to relegate devotion to the family to a subsidiary position in women’s lives. In the Philippines and Asia, family mattered.


To its credit, Unicef Philippines found affirmation for women-as-women programs in a culture that is comfortable with their multiple roles. The Philippines, in fact, became a much-heralded model worldwide for this integrated approach.

Further impetus came from evidence that when women earned, some 90 percent of their income went to their children’s needs. On education for women, the higher her educational level, the better the health and nutritional status of her children. Also, family planning and reproductive health access brought about the smaller family sizes parents preferred, along with safer health conditions for women during pregnancy and childbirth.

And so it is that as Unicef in the Philippines marks 70 years, the Unicef-Republic of the Philippines 2019-2023 Program of Cooperation is bent on enabling more, and eventually all, Filipino children to obtain their rights.

The organization’s supporters range far and wide, but the most enthusiastic among them are ordinary people whose lives it has touched. There is Mely Apang, the Aeta mother of five and grandmother of nine, who completed a midwifery course on a Unicef scholarship and returned to her indigenous community in Pampanga to serve as its first resident midwife. There’s also Amirah (pseudonym), a decommissioned child soldier who, in volunteering to help other children transition back to their community, received training through Unicef as a parasocial worker, and is simultaneously back in school.

Maraming salamat, Unicef!

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Dr. Mary Racelis teaches social anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines. She has interacted with Unicef since the 1960s, joining it in 1979 and serving in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, until her retirement and return to Manila in 1992.

TAGS: comments, opinion, UN, Unicef

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