Climate change undermines rights of child: UNICEF

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"Climate change is really undermining the rights of every child today and the children of tomorrow," Alex Heikens, a senior official with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), told Xinhua in an interview,just a few days before opening of the UN climate change summit.

The UN summit will start at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Sept. 23 and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be the host.

"The session is really about bringing the voices of marginalized people, particularly children, women and indigenous people, so they can be heard and seen by leaders," he said. "I think that's a major issue for children, women and indigenous people."

"(This summit) is a great opportunity for us to bring forward the voices of children," Heikens said.

The upcoming event also provides a "unique" opportunity for UNICEF, said Heikens, who is the senior advisor on climate and environment at the UN agency. He used to serve as United Nations Development Program (UNDP) advisor and program manager on climate change.

During the month of September, UNICEF works with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to organize a panel discussion advocating for the vulnerable people affected by climate change.

The upcoming thematic session, titled "Voices from the Climate Front Lines," will feature five panelists. Three of the five panelists will be selected by civil society and will include one woman, one indigenous person and a young person. The two pre- selected panelist are: Mary Robinson, UN special envoy for climate change and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice and Ronan Farrow, former UNICEF youth advocate.

"The specific focus of this conversation will be really about hearing their stories, experiences and ideas on what can be done much better," Heikens said.

The child-oriented agency is concentrated on intensifying the influence of children so they can facilitate adequate protection for them.


"Climate change is really a child rights issue," he said. "We need to work on it from that perspective."

"I think having a healthy climate and a healthy environment is a child's right. If you look at the root cause of climate change, it's greenhouse gas emissions," he said. UNICEF classifies gas emissions as air pollution.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified 25 years ago, outlines that children should be protected from all forms of contamination.

More specifically, the CRC declares that children should be protected from environmental pollution, Heikens said. "So from that perspective, it's a child's right to have clean air and live in a healthy environment."

"Air pollution clearly falls in the realm (summarized in) the convention on child's rights," he said while also pointing to access to water and a safe environment as two other important points in the CRC.

He said, "a safe environment (means) not being effected by floods, droughts and disasters."

Right now, the countries of Uganda and Mali are battling water shortages due to ongoing droughts.


The UNICEF official cited Uganda and Mali as examples of limited access to water in Africa.

Some communities in the two African countries have trouble in getting water, Heikens said, adding that the struggles with water have the greatest impact on vulnerable populations like women and girls.

Heikens asked the question, "now who is responsible for fetching water in many of these communities?"

"Often it's girls that have to fetch the water. They go out and they have to walk. The more problems we get with droughts, the further they have to walk," Heikens said. "As a consequence, they will have less time to go to school. So you see more droughts equate to school dropouts and school dropouts are on the rise."

Overall, if communities have limited access to clean water, people will turn to unsafe water much faster, he said, adding that unsafe water in many cases is contaminated with bacteria like E- coli, which, also known as Escherichia coli, is a bacteria normally living in the intestines of healthy people and animals.

"E-coli results in diarrhea, as you know many people die from diarrhea," the official said. A growing concern for UNICEF is that droughts are contributing to an increasing number of diarrhea cases.

Thus, the pitfalls of climate change have created distress for children living in communities with limited access to water and have had an effect on the most vulnerable groups like girls.

Right now, if the global community looks at national strategies and policies that have been issued over the last 10 years dealing with climate change, "you see very little attention (was paid) to children in the language and acknowledgment," he said. "Sometimes they are mentioned just once or twice saying that: 'children are very vulnerable' but you don't see anything more or concrete recommendations or actions to really do something. "

Both Zambia and Zimbabwe, however, are involving children in their conversations on climate change. The two African countries are giving young people and children a "basic" understanding of what climate change means now and for their futures.

The UNICEF teams on the ground reported that children are taking the information back to their communities to increase awareness, engaging with government in policy discussions and giving all children an ability to speak up and be heard.

In Zimbabwe, the government started to work with young people and other development partners on its national climate change strategy a few years ago. The government move is one of the very first climate change strategies that actually paid specific attention to children, he said.

So, the national government's efforts in including children in policy discourse is a strong step forward and a step more nations need to follow.

Consequently, this upcoming climate conference is giving all people in the international community an opportunity to be represented and heard, he added.

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