UNICEF sees regression for children’s welfare in Arab World

“If we did not have these brutal conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, it could have been so much better for kids,” said Juliette Touma UNICEF regional chief of communications.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Helping hand. Libyan students receive school supplies provided by UNICEF during the summer school programme at a local school in Tripoli, Libya.  (Reuters)
Helping hand. Libyan students receive school supplies provided by UNICEF during the summer school programme at a local school in Tripoli, Libya. (Reuters)

While progress has been made in the rights of children in the Middle East, there remain big challenges, including lessening poverty, improving education and curtailing violence in the home and among armed groups, said the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

For 30 years since the convention on the rights of the child, which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children and has been ratified by every country in the region, UNICEF has been highlighting its areas of concern.

Juliette Touma, UNICEF regional chief of communications, spoke with The Arab Weekly via telephone from Amman.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): “What are your main areas of concern for children in the Middle East?”

Juliette Touma (JT): “While it’s important to highlight the progress that has been made for children, it could have been so much better for kids around the region if there was better governance, if there was less poverty, if there was equity and if there were no wars. There’s absolutely no doubt that conflicts in places like Syria, Yemen and Iraq and also conflicts that have not been solved, that have been going on for decades like the state of Palestine, like Sudan, all of these conflicts have definitely contributed to a regression in children’s rights across the region.

“Progress was being made and then, in 2011, we saw the beginning of a regression and nine years down the line we can say for sure that conflicts have actually made things much, much worse for kids around the region.”

TAW: “What caused the regression in the region?”

JT: “In 2011, when you looked at all the indicators against the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals set by 189 countries in 2000 to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people], countries were actually doing well, but one or two countries, when it came to achieving the basics, such as clean water, poverty, hunger, education and so on.

“We have seen a regression largely because of the violence that happened in places like Syria, Yemen and Iraq. The best indicator for us is poverty and poverty is increasing because families are getting poorer, less people have jobs, which means inevitably that households and families are going to become poorer and that reflects on a child’s well-being whether that’s health, education or their rights overall.”

TAW: “What progress has been made?”

JT: “The progress that has been made despite all of this is quite fantastic. You have fewer kids dying before their fifth birthday, the numbers are 21 for every 1,000 births. We have more kids in school than ever before and we have 90% of kids who have access to clean water despite this region being one of the most water-scarce in the world. Despite all of that, people have access to water, to sanitation and to hygiene.

“But it could have been so much better if there was better governance and if there were better opportunities, especially for young people. If we did not have these brutal conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, it could have been so much better for kids.

“And it’s all man-made. It’s not like in 2011 we had a natural disaster or a tsunami. It’s all man-made, wars are all man-made and so they could be stopped. They could have stopped years ago.”

TAW: “What are the main obstacles for UNICEF?”

JT: “In conflict areas, we face a variety of factors that hamper our delivery of assistance to kids, including humanitarian access in the sense that it’s not sustainable and it’s not regular. We face that in Syria, we face that in Yemen and we face unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that stand in our way.

“The violence itself, the war itself is on its own a factor that stands in our way.

“The third thing is the sheer volume of needs, the number of children who are in need of humanitarian assistance across the region, which is 25 million, that’s one-in-seven kids around the region who need humanitarian assistance because of conflicts.”

TAW: “What other issues is UNICEF highlighting?”

JT: “We have serious issues in the region that we need to address and need to be talked about that are beyond conflict. There are serious issues like quality of education, unemployment among young people and violence. Four-out-of-five kids in the region have been subjected to some sort of violence, this is either physical or verbal, it’s sometimes sexual.

“According to UNICEF’s classification, this can be violence at school, at home, on the streets. Child marriage is violence and recruitment of children in armed conflicts is violence. Four-out-of-five is a scary number.

“We see very often on social media videos that continue to be circulated that are just absolutely horrific of parents who are doing parenting supposedly but they are doing it very violently to teach a kid how to stand up or how to teach a kid to eat properly. This is absolutely unacceptable but it’s so prevalent.”

TAW: “What are UNICEF’s priorities?”

JT: “Largely because of conflicts and because of wars and because of violence our priorities have shifted from 2013 until today to do much more humanitarian work rather than what we call upstream work, such as policy and advocacy work.

“So the lion’s share of our operations across the region has been and will continue to be for the foreseeable future humanitarian operations and responding to humanitarian needs on the ground. Our priorities are going to continue to be vaccinating children, doing screening against malnutrition, putting more kids in school or providing them with educational opportunities… Also, psycho-social support, which is forever the under-told story about the psychological impact that all of this is having on kids and how kids deal with shocks and traumas.”