3rd June 2001

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When children stole the show

A unique gathering in Kathmandu challenges corporate leaders and govt. officials to rethink their commitment to children. Feizal Samath reports

A South Asian businessman walks into the conference hall, weary after a late night flight, looks around at the audience of children and business leaders and reckons he could take a quick "snooze" before getting into conference mode.

But a child's voice rings across the floor, bringing him back to earth.

"I didn't know what hit me. The children were forceful in their presentations. They wanted to be heard, and so they were... getting about their business in a most professional manner," said the embarrassed corporate leader, who declined to be named, and subsequently enjoyed the sessions and the dialogue with the children.

That set the tone and pace for an interesting and unique gathering of children, corporate leaders, government ministers and officials in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu recently when UNICEF organized a South Asian meeting on investing in children.

The meetings, which ran from May 20 to May 23, drew participants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Sri Lanka's delegation was led by Plan Implementation Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and included Dr. Tara de Mel, Education Secretary, Prof. Harendra de Silva, chairman of the National Child Protection Authority, Sarvodaya leader Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and Ananda Rajapakse from the Finance and Planning Ministry.

While government and corporate leaders dominated most of the discussions, it was the 17 children from the region and a Bhutanese boy in particular who stole the show.

The children, ranging from 11 to 18 years, walked into some sessions distributing condoms to surprised delegates and challenged adults on promises and other issues. "If governments have been working for many years on preventing AIDS, why are the number of cases increasing instead of decreasing?" asked 14-year-old Kelzang Dorjee from Bhutan.

A conference delegate, responding, said that the public education messages on HIV/AIDS by governments appeared to have failed. "If that is the case, why not change the messages" prompted Dorjee, a question no one could provide a quick answer for.

Dorjee, who became the spokesperson for the group of youngsters, said in their discussions with corporate leaders, "we raised priority concerns for children in South Asia like protection against child abuse and child labour and exploitation, quality education for all, health and participation in decision-making."

While it was the first time children, business leaders and government ministers were meeting together in any part of the world, for corporate leaders it was a unique and unusual experience.

"We were challenged by the kids. They did not take things lying down and questioned us on our promises and whether we were committed," one industrialist observed.

Maldivian hotel magnate Waheed Deen was so moved by the plea from the youngsters for rights to education and more investment on children that he pontaneously offered to provide a computer to each of the 17 young participants with email and Internet facilities.

"I was amazed at their capacity to understand and the way they made an appeal to us," said Deen, adding that by being wired together the children or change makers as they are called in UN jargon, could work towards the progress of children in the region

The Kathmandu meeting was a regional initiative under the global movement for children and a preparatory meeting ahead of the special session of the UN General Assembly on Children to be held from September 19 to 21.

Reena, an 11-year old girl from Dehra Dun in India felt that if there was enough awareness amongst the business community, there could be some change in the place was she lives.

The Indian girl, whose parents are farmers, goes to school but many in her village don't have that privilege. "We are also deprived of proper health services as the clinics are too far from the village. The other problem is that even if we go to these clinics, girls are discriminated against in favour of boys," she added.

Mohamed Amin, a 16-year-old bottle collector living off the streets of Delhi, made it to the conference as a result of being a child activist himself. Amin is a member of a Child Rights Union, a child rights club and edits a local paper for children.

"We are often beaten up by police, coolies (labourers) and the public when we work on the street. But much of that has stopped after we formed a union and fought for our rights," noted Amin who feels that if the government can work together with business leaders to help children much of their problems could be sorted out. Sri Lanka's Ishara Madarasinghe and Maroof Ansary had their own story to tell about the plight of children. "One of the biggest problems in my village is that children are compelled to look after their siblings and even do household chores because their mothers have gone to the Middle East," 15-year-old Madarasinghe from the southern town of Deniyaya said.

Her colleague, Ansary from the eastern town of Trincomalee is actively involved in a children's club which recently took up a child abuse case with local authorities when police did not step in due to political influence. Ansary's club plans to send four young volunteers along with census takers on the day the country's national population census is taken next this month. "We want to collect data on child activities in our village."

The Kathmandu Understanding, adopted at the end of the meeting, acknowledged that while there had been progress in children's welfare issues in the region, much more has to be done to fulfil the rights of girls and boys in health, nutrition, education, protection against neglect, abuse and exploitation

The meeting also drew attention to HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and wars and civil conflicts in countries in the region where the most affected are women and children.

"We seem to find enough money for the military but not enough for children," lamented Kul Ghutam, deputy executive director for UNICEF, urging governments to shift resources from defence to social development and children.

He said while most military expenditures had declined worldwide since the end of the Cold War, South Asia had the highest growth in military spending compared to other regions.

UNICEF officials noted that the discussions were not the "usual" talk shop type of conference. "I can assure you that the private sector and government leaders would be held accountable for their commitments here," noted Nigel Fisher, UNICEF regional director for South Asia. Child participants also say they were convinced by the promises made by corporate leaders, "If they don't keep to their promises, we will go after them. We will make them accountable," noted 15-year-old Emmen Saeed from Pakistan.

(See Business Section)

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