Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

BOLIVIA: UN Calls for Broad Pact on Children’s Needs

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - A national pact to focus on the rights of children was proposed by United Nations representative in Bolivia Yoriko Yasukawa on the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“We have to decide to restore the dignity of children,” said Yasukawa, who heads the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in this South American country. “With love and effort, we must forge closer ties with those who differ with us or do not think the way we do.”

Her message was aimed at the different political currents in Bolivia, where the polarisation reached a peak in 2008, in a fierce battle between the leftwing government of Evo Morales and his largely indigenous support base and several wealthier lowlands provinces controlled by the rightwing opposition, which were seeking autonomy. Yasukawa played a mediating role in the conflict.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed by the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 20, 1989 and went into effect on Sept. 2, 1990. It was ratified by Bolivia in June 1990.

According to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund, Bolivia — the poorest nation in South America — is one of the countries in the world with the worst indicators of child well-being.

And although the United Nations has recognised recent efforts to improve conditions for children, its agencies believe that a broad pact involving the government and the opposition is needed to accelerate the pace of improvement.

The dire situation means that top priority must be put on children and adolescents, and in order for that to happen, a political agreement is needed, UNICEF representative Ludwig Guendel told IPS.

“Children must be put in a privileged place…because they represent half of the population (of 10 million) and they will consolidate the process of change in Bolivia,” said Guendel, the head of the local UNICEF office.

He underscored the progress made by Bolivia in reducing child mortality. In a report, he noted that the under-1 infant mortality rate has dropped from 90 to 50 deaths per 1,000 live births, between 1989 and 2008.

Nevertheless, in 2008 it remained the second highest in the western hemisphere, second only to Haiti.

Among the policies that have contributed to improving child indicators, Guendel highlighted a social programme launched last year, which provides special payments to pregnant women and mothers with children up to the age of two.

The cash transfers, which total 258 dollars over the space of a woman’s pregnancy and her baby’s first two years of life, are conditional on regular pre- and post-natal health care visits by the mother and checkups for her baby.

He also praised the new debate that has emerged on the possibility of providing universal health insurance.

Two decades after the Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force, Bolivia “is at a crossroads” with respect to how to tackle the needs of children and adolescents, in order to meet the obligations laid out by the international treaty, UNICEF communications officer in La Paz, Wolfgang Friedl, told IPS.

The country requires a substantial increase in social spending, which according to Friedl is “the only apolitical issue on which we cannot hide behind political pretexts of the moment.”

Morales, a 50-year-old Aymara Indian, first took office in 2006 and began his second term in January this year, after he was reelected with an unprecedented 64 percent of the vote, as the Movement to Socialism (MAS) candidate.

“Much has been achieved, but let’s sustain these achievements by means of greater social expenditure,” Friedl said. “These are questions that merit immediate attention in terms of the projection of rights for future generations, and without that spending we will see setbacks that we would not wish to lament.”

“This is a moment for reflection,” said Guendel, before pointing to the pending tasks in terms of children’s rights.

According to the UNICEF report, children in eight out of 10 households experience some kind of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, and six out of 10 children have unsatisfied needs, while nine out of 10 indigenous children live in poverty.

Indigenous people make up an estimated 60 percent of the population.

This year, political attention in Bolivia is focused on the transition to a decentralisation of power, which involves an increase in autonomy at the level of provincial government, as well as in indigenous communities.

But Friedl said the current political context should not lead to a weakening of anti-poverty policies like the “zero malnutrition” programme launched by the government in 2007 or the fight against inequalities “that suffocate the country.”

Guendel expressed concern that an estimated 850,000 children in Bolivia work to survive.

“This is a good time to bolster the spirit of coexistence,” said Guendel, while urging the Morales administration to work to strengthen agreements with other sectors on the need to focus on the most vulnerable segments of the population.

UNICEF also reported that in 2008, 27 percent of children in Bolivia suffered from chronic malnutrition, and that Guaraní, Chiquitano, Quechua and Aymara indigenous youngsters were most affected.

In 2007, nearly 1.9 million children and adolescents lived in extreme poverty — in other words, their families were unable to afford the cost of a basic food basket.

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