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Q&A: "A World &#39Unfit&#39 for 2.2 Billion Children"

Interview with Agneta Ucko, director of Arigatou International

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 31 2008 (IPS) - As the United Nations plans to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child next year, the world&#39s 2.2 billion children continue to suffer the consequences of growing poverty, rising illiteracy, increasing sexual abuse and widespread military conscription in conflicts worldwide.

Agneta Ucko Credit:

Agneta Ucko Credit:

"As with many other global agreements, protocols and international conventions, we see that there is a gap between the pledge and the reality on the ground," says Agneta Ucko, director of Arigatou International, liaison office of the Tokyo-based Arigatou Foundation and Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC).

She cites the international community&#39s unfulfilled pledges of billions of dollars to battle-scarred Afghanistan, where an ongoing military conflict has devastated the lives of mostly women and children.

"But the people of Afghanistan are still waiting for the world to live up to its promises," says Ucko, who is also the secretary-general of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children.

According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), the international community has reneged on its promise to provide some 25 billion dollars in aid, since 2001, to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

"Just 15 billion dollars in aid has so far been spent, of which it is estimated a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries," says ACBAR, in a report released last week.

In an interview with IPS U.N Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Ucko said: "There is certainly a commitment to address the plight of children but the world community also has to struggle to overcome an entrenched reality and tradition that does not have the child in the centre."

The 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was followed by a Plan of Action titled "A World Fit for Children" adopted by a Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2002.

But despite these two international commitments, a child born in sub-Saharan Africa has a one in six chance of dying before his or her fifth birthday, according to the U.N. children&#39s agency UNICEF.

Asked if a lack of political will is primarily responsible for the failings of the international community, Ucko said: "Maybe it is not a lack of political will, but a result of our failure to realise that &#39a world fit for children&#39 requires courage to stand up against a world that capitalises on children as a commodity, whether in the child sex-trade, child labour, child soldiers."

On average, says UNICEF, more than 27,000 children under the age of five die each day, mostly from preventable diseases.

Of the 11 countries where 20 percent, or more, of children die before the age of five – Afghanistan, Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone – over half have suffered a major armed conflict since 1989.

"Let&#39s not forget that it is only in our time that we luckily have come to see the child in the centre," said Ucko. In earlier times, children tended to be seen more as potential productive adults, she added.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: According to UNICEF&#39s latest statistics, nearly 93 million children of primary school age worldwide do not attend school, including about 41 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 31.5 million in South Asia, and 6.9 million in Middle East and North Africa. What should be done towards the education of these children?

AU: Everyone is affirming that education is very important. What is needed is a movement mobilising funds and infrastructure that could put in place sustainable educational systems. However, education is also a threat to many mono-political societies where education is used to safeguard political standpoints conducive to the regime in power. Civil society could be more intentionally advocating children&#39s right to education, which needs to be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.

IPA: In 2002, the General Assembly adopted a declaration and plan of action to create a "world fit for children". How close, or how far removed, are we from this proposed new world?

AU: We must remember that a world fit for children is a relatively new way to look upon children. Putting the child in the centre invites a revolutionary change in our thinking, even in religious traditions, where we could find beautiful texts that focused on the child.

A world fit for children remains an imperative and it is here I think that GNRC has a role to play. Inviting people of various religions to come together to contribute to a world fit for children is a way of reminding ourselves to make sense of our religious traditions and to refocus on the integrity of the child.

The Plan of Action of the "A World Fit for Children" document sets out three necessary outcomes: the best possible start in life for children; access to a quality basic education, including free and compulsory primary education; and ample opportunity for children and adolescents to develop their individual capacities.

The educational material that will be launched at the GNRC Third Forum in Hiroshima in May is an attempt to respond to these goals. We want to build capacity in children to better understand and respect people from other cultures and religions in developing a strong sense of ethics. We see this as a contribution to the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to meet the goals of the action plan for a world fit for children.

IPS: The Catholic Church says it runs more than 250,000 schools on all continents, with 3.5 million teachers educating 42 million students. How have other major religions, including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, played their roles in religion and education?

AU: Religion and education belong together, although it is probably fair to say that education within religion mainly meant education about one&#39s religion and religious instruction. The purpose of education was to pass on the religious tradition through formal instruction in classes, memorising texts. Religious instruction was particularly important when an individual was being prepared for full membership of the religious community. Religious beliefs were, and are, transmitted through a gradual process of immersion into the religious life of the community. In some traditions, the practice of spiritual disciplines enables the individual to achieve the intended goals of life. In some countries religious education takes place through the secular day school system and this may offer instruction in all the traditions of that particular country.

The Christian tradition has indeed provided many possibilities for education, running Christian schools in many parts of the world. But also other traditions have been offering the same possibilities. I am here thinking of the education system and schools initialised in many parts of Central Asia under the leadership of the Turkish Muslim movement Hizmet and the leadership of Fethullah Glen.

The contribution of the GNRC would here be to further that religious tradition and shoulder a responsibility, where education intentionally is provided with an awareness of both the multifaith and multicultural world in which we live, thus an interfaith dimension to and in education.

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