UNICEF: Protecting children is key to their health

News and Press Release
Originally published
Abuse and Exploitation Do Lasting Damage to Healthy Development
GENEVA / NEW YORK, 4 April 2003 - As the world prepares to mark World Health Day this Monday UNICEF said today that tens of millions of children suffer long-term damage to their health every year from exploitation, abuse, and violence - hazards that are often overlooked in public health planning.

"A well-nourished child who is beaten at home is not a healthy child," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "A child who is sexually abused at school is not a healthy child. An immunized child who is forced into hazardous child labour is not a healthy child. Such abuse and exploitation has huge implications for the long-term health and development of millions of children."

Noting that the theme for World Health Day on April 7 is "Healthy Environments for Children," Bellamy said governments and communities had to address both the physical environment in which children spend their days, and the "protective" environment that is essential to keeping every child out of harm's way.

UNICEF emphasized that the fundamental environmental health risks facing children include poor sanitation, unclean water, inadequate hygiene, pollution, and other environmental hazards that can lead to fatal diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infection.

But UNICEF said that a "protective environment" for children is just as crucial to their health and development, calling violence, abuse and exploitation "the silent dangers" that lurk in every society in the world.

"Children have the right to an environment that safeguards them not only against disease, but against ill-treatment," Bellamy said.

UNICEF said a protective environment is one in which communities and families are committed to upholding child rights; in which laws are in place to protect children and prosecute offenders; in which laws are consistently enforced; in which government devotes resources to eliminating exploitation of children; in which the media highlights the issues and challenges discriminatory attitudes; and in which adults who spend time with children - parents, teachers, religious leaders, and others - are able to recognize the signs of abuse and respond accordingly.

UNICEF pointed out that tens of millions of children suffer from severe abuse and violence each year:

  • In the last decade, millions of children have died as a result of conflicts
  • Over the same period, 6 million have been injured or disabled in wars
  • An estimated 300,000 children are being used as child soldiers, including girls, who are used as sex slaves and exposed to diseases such as HIV
  • Over 180 million children are engaged in hazardous child labour
  • Some 5.7 million are enslaved in bonded labour
  • And an estimated 100 million girls and women have endured the unspeakable abuse of genital mutilation, usually carried out in childhood or adolescence
"The fact that these abuses still exist is a manifestation of the world's systematic failure to protect those who are most defenceless," said Bellamy. "All children have a right to grow up in an environment that ensures their protection."

Hazards in School and at Play

Bellamy said that children also face serious environmental health hazards in the very places they are thought to be most safe: the school and the community.

She pointed out that most schools in the developing world lack basic sanitary facilities and sources of potable water. In such conditions, children are easily infected with illnesses such as diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections. About 1.5 million children die from diarrhoea each year.

The same conditions affect the environments where children play. Open sewage, unsafe disposal of domestic and industrial waste, and pollution of sources of water supply expose children to a host of dangers that may have immediate and long-term effects on their health and development.

Globally, nearly 11 million children die before their fifth birthday, overwhelmingly from causes that are preventable and treatable.

UNICEF advocates integrated approaches that combine interventions in health care and nutrition for children and mothers; clean water and proper sanitation; psychosocial care and early learning; and protection from violence, abuse and neglect.

"Children must have every chance to survive and thrive," said Bellamy. "The risks that jeopardize the health and well-being of children must not be limited to diseases and infections. Children must live in a protective environment that fortifies them against exploitation in the same way that good health and nutrition fortify them against disease."

For further information, please contact:

Lynn Geldof, UNICEF Media, Geneva: (41-79) 909-5531
Mohammad Jalloh, UNICEF Media, New York: (1-212) 326-7516