01/02/2014 08:20 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

Painting a Happier Picture for Children

Why do we love children's drawings? Because they capture the happy and carefree moments in their lives and ours. They depict the world as children see it -- innocent, bright and uplifting. How often have you smiled at the crayoned images stuck to a refrigerator door, or rediscovered between the pages of a family album?

Even in horrible circumstances I have been inspired by upbeat, plucky drawings of post-earthquake children in Haiti or kids sheltering in the midst of floods in Pakistan.

But too many paint a different picture. In the last year, after many months of barbarity in Syria, the drawings of Syrian children have become alarmingly dark. Like the colourless self-portrait I saw of a girl kneeling with head bowed in sadness, while the background depicts burning houses and explosions leading to an empty horizon. Or boys' pictures of extreme violence, and future revenge.

Sometimes the pictures are in my mind, as memories of children I have met. Like 6 year old Nana, who was living under plastic sheets in a settlement in Lebanon. She was clutching a little doll she had made from paper, as she told me how she had left her real doll behind in Syria to protect her home there.

These bleak, desperate images of children confront us every day on our television screens and in our newspapers. Footage of schools being bombed and burning in Syria, or hospitals targeted. From the Central African Republic come reports of children being deliberately massacred, just because of their faith or the community they live in. And now in South Sudan, we see thousands of children seeking refuge from violence for which they bear no responsibility, and children missing after being dragged with their families from their homes.

But before we let these haunting pictures of children's suffering create a sense of hopelessness, we should recall the wonderful things that the world has made possible for children over the last year.

Wonderful things such as rapid reductions in stunting amongst children in Peru, Ethiopia and parts of India, or plummeting infant, child and maternal mortality in Bangladesh -- a nation that now directs more than 10 per cent of its public spending towards social programmes to support poorer families. Good investments today for a more equitable future.

Or the million children who were vaccinated against measles in a single month in the Democratic Republic of Congo, proving that good things happen even in troubled places. Or the fresh data showing that the number of new HIV infections dropped by half amongst children in seven African countries over the last four years, in a continent synonymous with the pandemic.

Or the way communities rallied against female genital mutilation and cutting. UNICEF can report that in more than half of the countries where this deadly practice is concentrated, girls are now less likely to be cut than their mothers.

And grassroots campaigns called with increasing volume for an end to violence against children -- in countries as diverse as China, Colombia India, Moldova and Sierra Leone, to name but a few. The invisible outrage of child abuse is becoming ever more visible.

Wonderful things happened for children because more people are daring to try new ideas. Such as in poor, rural communities of Morocco where an innovative programme won global recognition for combining free tuition and new teaching approaches to reach some 15,000 local women and girls. From local steps in a few villages begin great strides on the global stage.

Great things happened for children because children helped make them happen. Children like Nguyen Phuong Anh, from Viet Nam, who came to New York and sang to an audience of those in town for the UN General Assembly. Nguyen has a serious physical disability -- but like so many children with disabilities, she has focused her talents and energies on showing the world what she can do, rather than what she cannot. Her resonant voice both inspired and humbled her audience; a powerful reminder that when children with disabilities can unleash their talents, energies and ideas, all society benefits.

Too often those powerful, positive images of children are cast in a shadow when the world fails its children, when it doesn't protect and nurture them, and when children's best interests are not placed first.

But the experience of the last year shows that there will always be pictures of which we should be proud, pictures that make us smile, pictures that inspire us to do better for our children.
Let us pray for 2014 that in Syria, the Central African Republic, the Sahel, South Sudan and other conflicted areas, the so-called 'adults' will come to their senses and allow the children to be children again -- drawing the pictures that children should draw.

Anthony Lake is the Executive Director of UNICEF