December 12, 1999
Brutish Wars Are Devastating to Children, Unicef Says
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
NITED NATIONS -- After centuries of great advances in
science and economic development,
a rash of brutish, primitive wars is
setting back the lives of millions of
the world's poorest people, mostly
children and their mothers, Unicef
says in a new report.
Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, gets caught in civil conflict itself, making it more difficult
and dangerous to function where it is
needed most, its director, Carol Bellamy, said in an interview on Thursday before leaving for Berlin, where
the report, "The State of the World's
Children 2000," will be released on
"We have a figure that continues
to fascinate me," she said. "It basically says that 540 million, or one in
four children in the world, live with
violence that might erupt at any
time, or with displacement in their
Outside her office, Ms. Bellamy, a
former Peace Corps director, has
hung a photograph of Unicef's ransacked headquarters in East Timor.
Two Unicef officials have been killed
in the last two months, one a doctor
trying to immunize children in Somalia and the other working with displaced people in Burundi.
Conflict in some of the world's
poorest nations has led to "the virtual dismantling of even modest health
and education systems that existed,"
She cited the Congo Republic,
which in the late 1980's and early
90's, she said, had a reasonably high
immunization coverage and primary
school attendance. "The World
Health Organization had basically
their African headquarters there,"
she said, "but as a result of the wars
over the last few years the systems
almost stopped functioning."
Unicef now has to negotiate its
way into war zones to immunize children. Ms. Bellamy said that last year
she and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the
director general of the World Health
Organization, sought Secretary General Kofi Annan's intervention in the
Congo Republic to allow a vaccination project to function. In Somalia,
Sudan, Angola and Afghanistan, Unicef officials are forced into political
negotiations in order to help children.
"Immunizing kids against polio today is far more than just sending the
vaccines into the country," she said.
"You've got to get to them."
Unicef, working upward from the
community level, has begun supporting home schools in Afghanistan
while waiting for agreement with the
Taliban government to begin larger
education projects, especially for
girls. In other countries at war, Unicef tries to reach dislocated children.
"We support even modest education going on in even the worst conflicts," Ms. Bellamy said, "because
who will lead these countries if you
lose a whole generation of kids that
haven't gone to school?"
Civil wars are not unrelated to the
other two leading causes of setbacks
for children in recent years, poverty
and the spread of the virus that
causes AIDS. Richard C. Holbrooke,
the United States representative at
the United Nations, said while on a
tour of Africa last week that the war
that has drawn soldiers from all over
Africa to the Congo Republic is sending AIDS back home with them,
worsening a health crisis that is remaking African societies.
Ms Bellamy said AIDS was
"stretching systems" in several
countries. "The impact in the worst
countries is quite extraordinary,"
she said, "and if that is any measure
of what it could be in some other
countries, one virtually sees the
whole pulling apart of society.
"A simple immunization program
assumes that there is some kind of
primary caregiver," she added. "A
very modest attempt to get kids into
primary school means you are going
to have to get teachers. When you're
losing the teachers and you're losing
the mothers -- and grandmothers
are taking care of 9 kids, or 8 or 11 --
it makes it very difficult."
Other factors include government
policies that put more money into the
military than into health and education, and the degree of commitments
to improve the lives of women.
"Gender is very much a drag on
the pace of development in South
Asia," Ms. Bellamy said. According
to the Unicef report, that region,
dominated by India, has the lowest
literacy rates for women in the
world, the lowest percentage of girls
in school, and, with sub-Saharan Africa, the lowest prevalence of contraception. The region has more than
one-sixth of the world's people, but,
the report says, only Sri Lanka and
the Maldives show levels of female
development on a par with industrialized nations.
"We really are calling for the re-energizing of leadership for children," she said of the report.
we are hoping is that government
leaders and community and the private sector will all take a look at
themselves and say, 'There is more
that can be done; we can do better
than we're doing.' "