Philippine Daily Inquirer

Unicef: 70 years and counting

- LOTTA SYLWANDER

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.

———— Lotta Sylwander is the country representa­tive of Unicef Philippine­s.

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