Twenty years after the U.N. adopted a treaty guaranteeing children's rights, 1 billion children are still deprived of food, shelter or clean water, and nearly 200 million are chronically malnourished, UNICEF said Thursday.
There are some bright spots — fewer youngsters are dying and more are going to school, the U.N. children's agency said in a report issued on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said the convention "has transformed the way children are viewed and treated throughout the world."
"As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the convention stands at a pivotal moment," she told a news conference.
"Its relevance remains timeless. The challenge for the next 20 years is to build on the progress achieved, working together to reach those children who are still being denied their rights to survival, development, protection and participation."
U.S. still a holdout
The convention has the widest support of any human rights treaty, with ratifications legally binding 193 countries to its provisions. But not all countries are implementing its requirements, Veneman said.
Only two countries — the United States and Somalia — have not ratified it. The Clinton administration signed the convention but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification because a number of groups argued it infringed on the rights of parents and was inconsistent with state and local laws.
Asked about the U.S. failure to ratify, Veneman said "it is frustrating," but she noted that President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice "have expressed a strong desire to move the U.S. in the direction of approving the convention."
Over the past 20 years, she said, more than 70 countries have used the convention to incorporate codes protecting children and ensuring their rights into national legislation.
The convention has also brought measures "to ensure that children are safeguarded from violence, abuse, discrimination and exploitation," Veneman said.
Still, "between 500 million and 1.5 billion children are estimated to experience violence annually," the report said.
The report noted one of the convention's most outstanding achievements was the improvement in child survival. The number of deaths of children under 5 decreased from around 12.5 million in 1990 to an estimated 8.8 million in 2008 — a 28 percent decline, it said.
Other pluses were an increase in HIV prevention and treatment for children, and an increase in primary school education.
In 2002, some 115 million children weren't going to school, while in 2007 the number dropped to 101 million, the report said. However, while the gender gap has narrowed, girls are still losing out, it said.
Problem extreme in Asia, Africa
Nevertheless, UNICEF said children's rights are far from assured.
"It is unacceptable that children are still dying from preventable causes, like pneumonia, malaria, measles and malnutrition," Veneman said in a statement. "Many of the world's children will never see the inside of a school room, and millions lack protection against violence, abuse, exploitation, discrimination and neglect."
An estimated 1 billion children lack access to good health care, adequate nutrition, education, clean water, sanitation facilities or adequate shelter.
Children in Africa and Asia suffer the worst deprivation, Veneman said. "More than nine out of 10 children who are not attending school, who are malnourished, and who die before the age of 5 live in these two continents."
More than 24,000 children under 5 die every day from largely preventable causes, according to the report. Some 150 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labor and more than 140 million children under 5 are underweight for their age, it said.
UNICEF said climate and population shifts threaten recent advances in child rights and the convention's 20th anniversary year has been marked by the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression.
"There is a real danger that the repercussions of these shocks will have lifelong consequences that span generations, undermining efforts to advance children's rights for the coming decades," it warned.