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Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
Mandela's mission for children
Child soldiers in Sierra Leone
Unicef is trying to help children who have been engulfed by military conflict
Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel want to persuade leading nations to help the world's impoverished and abused children. Fergus Nicoll examines the challenge they face.

It is a daunting challenge. In seeking to move children to the centre of the international agenda, Nelson Mandela has, at 83, set himself a mission that has defeated younger, though less charismatic figures.

His central task is now to persuade the world's political leaders to translate fair words into real action - ending discrimination and violence against children and adolescents.

"We are not seeking and will not accept vague promises," Mr Mandela said at the launch of the initiative in May last year.

We cannot waste our precious children. Not another one, not another day. It is long past time for us to act on their behalf

Nelson Mandela
"Our purpose is to get specific commitments from these leaders and specific results," he said.

In June, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan published a report, We the Children, on the work that still remains to be done.

His conclusions included these stark figures:

  • More than 10 million children still die each year from preventable causes
  • More than 150 million still suffer from malnutrition
  • About 100 million children - mostly girls - are still not in school.

The lives of millions are devastated by war, forced labour and prostitution.

Two strong women

In setting up the Global Movement for Children, Mr Mandela has two formidable allies - his wife Graca Machel, and the Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Carol Bellamy.

Graca Machel:
Graca Machel: Children's rights campaigner
The reputation of Graca Machel as an educator and children's champion was cemented by her genuinely ground-breaking 1996 report on the impact of armed conflict on children.

It followed her earlier work while she was first lady of Mozambique. Her first husband, President Samora Machel, died in an air-crash in 1986. More importantly, her personality makes her a powerful force.

Children are the nucleus of sustainable human development. Relatively small investments in their health, education and welfare pay huge dividends for society

Graca Machel

She does not suffer fools gladly and does not hesitate to take politicians to task when she sees them falling short.

I have seen her berate an audience of diplomats in impeccable suits for sitting back in the comfort of their embassies while in countries of conflict children are killed, raped and denied their fundamental rights.

Carol Bellamy too is a force to be reckoned with. What she lacks in charm is made up for in relentless drive.


Children should be at the top of the international agenda. World leaders are demonstrating that by coming together to commit to a better future for children - and that translates into a better future for us all

Carol Bellamy
Simply put (and in the context of the UN, life is rarely simple), Unicef gets the job done.

The Bellamy factor - a no-holds-barred, no-expletives-deleted, New York-style work ethic - has transformed Unicef from a fluffy feel-good agency to a highly effective field-based operation that raises impressive sums through its network of national committees.

Some recent examples:

  • The launch in Cambodia of a five-year vaccination programme aimed at reaching every young child in South East Asia, sponsored by Bill Gates to the tune of $750m
  • Unicef shelters for 227 former child soldiers on the DRC/Rwanda border
  • Former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and actor Michael Douglas persuaded to join high-profile campaign in support of children.

It is perhaps inevitable that images of children affected by war attract the greatest attention - from the public and therefore from the politicians.

Children in war: Key issues
Death and injury
Rape and physical abuse
Psychological trauma
Under-age recruitment

The Graca Machel report put the issue in its many aspects squarely on the international agenda.

Since then it has been kept in the spotlight by Unicef, by a range of vigorous international non-governmental organisations, and by the UN's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu.

The Uganda-born diplomat - a charismatic man with a ready smile but a steely core - was appointed to follow up on the Machel report, to travel the world's trouble-spots (most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo), naming and shaming those who abuse the rights of children in theatres of war.

But this is an area where co-operation within the UN house has often been lacking.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that the appointment of Mr Otunnu - seen by some within Unicef as a rival for headlines and funds - has spurred the agency into even more energetic action on behalf of children in conflict.

Unicef has worked hard to ensure that the Special Session of the UN's General Assembly - from 19-21 September - will be a success.

Out of 100 children
33 do not officially exist or hold nationality
27 are not immunised against any disease
32 suffer from malnutrition by the age of five
18 have no access to safe drinking water
18 (11 of them girls) never go to school
Source: Unicef

The Mandela name has been a strong factor in attracting at least 75 heads of state to confirm that they will attend - a figure cited by Unicef as the largest ever to attend a conference on children.

The world's leaders will be asked to commit themselves in public to finding and funding real solutions to the real problems affecting children.

Unicef is objective about progress since the last such "children's summit" 10 years ago.

Nelson Mandela makes a point after a UN Security Council meeting
Nelson Mandela's high profile may help the project succeed
Of 27 specific goals - ranging from the reduction of infant mortality and malnutrition to universal access to education - the agency reports "some progress" in 12, "notable success" in six, "limited or inconclusive data" in another six and "no progress at all" in three.

In his June report, Mr Annan said the world had fallen short of achieving most the those goals - not because they were too ambitious or technically beyond reach, but "largely because of insufficient investment".

The focus goals this year include:

  • Increasing access to health services for women and children
  • Reducing the spread of preventable diseases
  • Creating more opportunities for education.

The Global Movement for Children hopes that the media glare on the children's summit will make it harder for the politicians and diplomats to wriggle out of their promises.

Fergus Nicoll is a freelance journalist who reports for the BBC. He worked for Olara Otunnu from 1999-2000.

Click here to watch the Nelson Mandela webcast and read a transcript





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