Renewed Focus and New Goals Must Make Child Protection a Priority

Last month, UNICEF's most recent Progress for Children report provided a sobering reminder of the many challenges that remain in building a world that is safe, healthy and hopeful for the poorest children. While the report acknowledges the tremendous strides that have been taken over the past 15 years through the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs -- a collective commitment among governments across the globe to address such issues as maternal health, child mortality and primary education -- Progress cautions us with this dose of reality: Not only do we still have a long way to go toward reaching children in the most extreme poverty, but without a renewed and expanded resolve to do so, there is also a very real risk that years of progress will be erased and new generations of children will fall victim to the pernicious cycle of poverty that so many have worked hard to disrupt.

The UNICEF report is especially timely. We have for years been encouraged by the tangible progress that several of the MDGs have yielded. Since 1990, the number of deaths of children under age 5 has been cut in half, from 12.7 million to 6.3 million. The percentage of people in developing countries living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2010. HIV infections are down by 38 percent since 2001, and today, 90 percent of the world's population uses improved sources of drinking water, up from 76 percent 25 years ago. It's the kind of momentum that perhaps fueled Bill Gates' declaration last year that there will be no poor countries by 2035.

As the UNICEF report reminds us, however, these selected statistics belie the uneven movement in many of the goal categories. The world's poorest children, for example, are still twice as likely as their richer counterparts to die before their fifth birthdays. The sad truth is that, irrespective of these gains, poverty takes the lives of more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 every day. Similarly, although we have knocked on the door of achieving universal primary education for all children -- boys and girls alike -- the fact remains that there are still close to 60 million primary school-aged children out of school, and in some regions -- sub-Saharan Africa for one -- girls lag well behind boys in their capacity to continue their educations. The story is much the same on other fronts as well.

In effect, what Progress for Children concludes is that much of the success to date has come as a result of our capacity to improve the lives of those who were the easiest -- or, put another way, the least difficult -- to help. The hardest-to-reach witnessed little, if any, movement. As dispiriting as that may be, it's also only part of the story. Just as noteworthy are the approaching demographic realities, which predict that significant population growth in the years to come has the potential to eradicate much of the progress that has been achieved in many parts of the world.

UNICEF's analysis delivers telling data, especially at a time when governments around the world are poised to find consensus on the next set of global commitments -- the Sustainable Development Goals. The new goals will require not only the resolve but also the resources necessary to reach deeper and more expansively into developing nations. They also will need to acknowledge another area where we have been deficient over the past 15 years -- the protection of children from violence. Although a commitment to helping protect children from violence was not part of the original MDGs, it is essential that we make a global commitment to the safety and well-being of our children as we move forward.

The threat to children takes many forms. Every five minutes, a child is killed by violence, according to a report last year from UNICEF UK. In 2012, close to 100,000 children and teens were victims of homicide, and almost 1 billion kids are subjected to regular physical punishment, largely at home or in school. The United Nations Study on Violence Against Children estimates that 150 million girls and 73 million boys endure sexual violence, and according to the International Labour Organization, 168 million children -- many of them under 10 years old -- are forced to work. Child labor, often hazardous and unsafe, puts children's health at risk but also deprives them of their childhood and, by keeping them from school, denies them any potential for a better life. And there are, of course, financial consequences. The global costs of the physical, psychological and sexual violence against children are estimated to be as high as $7 trillion, equivalent to 8 percent of the world's Gross Domestic Product.

This is a seminal moment. As governments work collaboratively to set an agenda for the future, UNICEF's progress report provides a greater sense of clarity about the commitments that need to happen if progress is to occur in ways that make a difference in the lives of the world's most vulnerable populations. But the protection of children must be a central part of that conversation. Our obligation to the world's newest generation starts with ensuring that they are kept safe and healthy, and that we bestow on them a sense of promise and hope that their tomorrows will be better than their yesterdays.

If you agree that protecting children should be a foremost priority, we at ChildFund Alliance ask that you join us in our Free From Violence campaign, an international effort to make child protection a signature component of the next generation of global commitments. For more information -- and to join with citizens from around the world in signing the Free From Violence petition -- visit www.FreeFromViolence.org.