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Led by children

November 19, 2017

DURING my two years in Pakistan, I have travelled to many places in Pakistan, from the mountain valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan to the desert in Sindh, from the urban slums of Lahore to the coastal villages in Balochistan. When I looked in the eye of a seven-year-old Kalash girl in Chitral or the rag-picking boy in Karachi, I have always seen the same thing in their eyes — a light of love, kindness and hope for a bright future.

This hope lays a heavy responsibility upon us adults. It is our job to ensure that children have a perfect start in life, with easy and affordable access to health, education, protection and other services to help them achieve their full potential.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, on Nov 20, 1989, the world came together to make that very pledge to children. The nations of the world signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child and, in doing so, committed to protecting children’s rights. This date has since been celebrated as World Children’s Day.

Since that day, we’ve come a long way towards building a better future for children. Far fewer mothers and children die of preventable illnesses, and 28.5 million Pakistani children are enrolled in school. In 2016 alone, 2.3m Pakistanis gained access to sanitation. In 2014, there were 306 cases of polio in Pakistan; so far, this year, there have only been five.

A light of hope illuminates the eyes of Pakistan’s youth.

Yet there’s still a long way to go before we achieve a world in which all children, no matter who they are, or where they live, have the chance to flourish. For this reason, it’s time for adults to take a step back. And that’s why this year, on Nov 20, 2017, we are celebrating a day of action for children, led by children.

Around the world, children are taking over the media, politics, business, sport, and entertainment. They are using this spotlight to speak about the challenges their generation faces, and to hold us all accountable.

They are here to remind us that each one of them has the right to survive and thrive. Yet in Pakistan, 55 out of every 1,000 children born die in their first month of life; half are chronically malnourished.

They ask us whether even the water they drink and the environment they live in is safe, when every year 91,000 Pakistani children die from pneumonia and 53,300 from diarrhoea: diseases linked to unsafe water and unsanitary practices such as defecating in the open.

On Nov 20, Pakistan’s children point out that every girl and boy has a right to learn. They remind us that one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave — yet 22.6m of them remain out of school, 12.1m of them girls. As they take over the spaces that are normally reserved for adults, Pakistan’s children ask us how we protect them from violence, abuse and exploitation.

In my time in Pakistan, I have seen such questions in the faces of countless young girls and boys eager to learn and grow. If children are the future of a country, the answers to their questions define the shape of that future. It’s time for adults to be held accountable for the world we create for our children.

But answering the questions children put to us requires more than words. We need to act and we need to do it now.

For example, we know that a full course of vaccinations gives protection from childhood killers such as measles. We have successful models that can help to ensure every child gets all needed vaccinations. In Pakistan’s historic struggle against polio, dedicated women and men went door to door, finding children who were continually missed by immunisation programmes. This model can be used to deliver vaccines and other lifesaving services.

We can apply lessons learned in recent years: that children who go to preschool are more likely to stay in education and that families and neighbours can help bring all children, especially girls, to school. We can give children who miss out on education another chance to learn through alternative learning programmes.

Universal birth registration gives every child an identity and access to protection, and we have seen how entire villages acting together can end open defecation.

When every Pakistani girl and boy — regardless of religion, disability or ethnicity; whether they live in cities or the country, or are rich or poor — can look forward to a life of health, opportunity and well-being, every day will truly be World Children’s Day. If we build on the lessons and successes of recent years, we can bring this future within our grasp. We owe it to Pakistan’s children to act.

The leaders of the future are our leaders today, and they are ready to ask difficult questions. Nov 20 is the day children take control.

The writer is Unicef’s acting representative in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2017