Building a Europe for and with children

Ann Veneman
Executive Director of UNICEF      


 Thank you, Mr President. Mr Secretary General, Madam Deputy Secretary General, Your Royal Highness, distinguished members of parliament, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and I very much appreciate your kind invitation.

We welcome Mr Gardetto’s report on violence against children and the launch last year of the Council of Europe’s programme “Building a Europe for and with Children”. The programme is an important tool in addressing the problem of violence and in helping to build a safe environment where children can flourish.

The Council of Europe has long been proactive in improving the lives of children. With its leadership, the parliaments of Europe have adopted some of the most progressive national legislation to combat different forms of violence against children, including sexual exploitation, trafficking and corporal punishment. Your efforts can serve as a model for others in helping to keep children safe from harm and in providing them with an environment in which they can lead healthy and productive lives.

The Council of Europe and UNICEF have long enjoyed a co-operative relationship on areas such as promoting a world fit for children, combating violence against children and protecting children from sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Today, we signed a joint declaration reinforcing the co-operation between the Council of Europe and UNICEF and underlining our complementarities and shared goals in responding to the needs and rights of children. We look forward to continuing our close partnership on behalf of the world’s children.

In 1946, just three years before the Council of Europe was established, UNICEF began its work in the aftermath of the Second World War, primarily delivering emergency assistance to children in need in Europe and Japan. Last month, UNICEF marked its 60th anniversary. That anniversary provided an opportunity to celebrate the many accomplishments of the past sixty years and to build on the momentum while acknowledging that much more needs to be done.

Over the years, UNICEF evolved from its emergency beginnings to become an organisation dedicated to enhancing the well-being of children in emergency and non-emergency situations. UNICEF and its partners continue to work tirelessly to protect children and their rights, and to help to achieve the millennium development goals – from reducing poverty, hunger, child and maternal mortality, and the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases to improving health, gender equality and environmental sustainability, as well as ensuring universal primary education.

The world has seen more tangible gains against poverty and more progress for children in the last sixty years than in the previous 500. Between 1960 and 2004, the under-5 mortality rates in developing countries on average decreased from 222 deaths per 1 000 live births to 87 per 1 000 live births. Today, immunisation with routine vaccines has reached more than 70% of children worldwide, compared with less than 40% in the early 1980s. More children are in school than ever before, and disparities in enrolment between boys and girls are narrowing in most parts of the world. But much remains to be done.

We still live in a world in which more than 2 billion people survive on $2 or less a day. More than 10 million children under the age of 5 die every year of causes that are largely preventable, such as disease and malnutrition. Natural disasters, exploitation, violence, famine and hunger continue to undermine peace and stability. Every minute, nine more people become HIV positive, and at least one of those is a child under the age of 15.

Throughout my travels for UNICEF, I have witnessed many of the children’s faces that lie behind those numbers. I have seen mothers and babies in Malawi and other countries in southern Africa who are dying of AIDS. I have met girls and women sold into brothels for someone else’s gain, including a young Romanian woman who was trafficked to Ireland and forced into prostitution.

Issues concerning children, including violence and abuse, transcend national borders. They affect developing as well as developed countries. As the UN landmark study on violence against children highlights, and as Mr Gardetto’s report helps to underscore in its findings, violence against children happens in every country and cuts across social, cultural, religious and ethnic lines.

Both reports also note that more and better data are needed to provide a complete picture of the scope of the problem. Violence against children cannot be prevented by simple interventions; it requires the challenging of deeply entrenched cultural practices and the bringing into public view of what is frequently considered a private matter.

Violence often comes from people who are closest to the child – family members, school mates, teachers, employers, boyfriends or girlfriends, spouses and partners. Children in institutional care – an estimated more than 1 million children in Europe alone – are especially vulnerable to violence and rarely have any recourse.

Children and young people who lack the protection of a parent or a close family member are often more vulnerable to abuse, including exploitation through prostitution and child pornography. Many of those children are coerced or deceived into those activities or are victims of trafficking.

In parts of Europe, for example, social disparities are pushing some children on to the streets or into institutions. Street children face multiple dangers, including violence, child prostitution and drug abuse, which can also put them at higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

The Deputy Secretary General’s study helps to provide focus for regional and national policy makers on how to combat violence and abuse against children. Yet data and legislation on violence against children are often alarmingly weak. This is an area where I believe UNICEF and the Council of Europe can expand their co-operation.

In many parts of the world, systems for recording or investigating violence against children must be strengthened. Where official statistics exist, they often dramatically underestimate the magnitude of the problem. A comprehensive response is needed to keep violence out of children’s lives, including ending corporal punishment in schools. For example, countries must make sure that a well-functioning legal system is in place to protect children against violence, with an enforcement mechanism to punish those who harm children.

We look to organisations such as the Council of Europe to push further the legal standards on the prevention of violence and to monitor the progress made in member states. Although legal obligations lie with the state, all sectors of society share the responsibility for condemning and preventing violence against children. For example, communities can play a key role in preventing violence and abuse. Working together in partnership with governments, the public and private sectors, civil society and the community, including teachers, parents, boys and girls, we can create a world that is truly fit for children. Thank you very much.