December 12, 1999

Brutish Wars Are Devastating to Children, Unicef Says


UNITED 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 Monday.

"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 own countries."

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 said.

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.

"What 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.' "


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