This past November, while we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a grim milestone was reached in the east African nation of Somalia. The conflict and instability which has characterized that nation for the past 20 years has produced a generation in its central southern province that has never known peace.
In this season of peace and goodwill, this jarring reality should spur us to action so that future generations are not lost.
The mere mention of Somalia conjures in the mind of everyday Americans a place where lawlessness reigns. Indeed, the perception is that no other country has done more to place the issue of maritime piracy at the forefront of our minds and within our headlines.
While this may be true...it's certainly not the whole story.
Last year, in my role as UNICEF Ambassador, I spent five days in northwest Somalia. There's no question that years of civil war and a defunct central government has left much of this nation dangerously unstable. In fact, half the population of Somalia remains internally displaced and in a state of humanitarian emergency.
This tragic reality affects an estimated 3.6 million people, half of whom are children. Over 1.5 million are displaced as a result of conflict, largely between Islamic extremists and government forces. Not only is this population burdened by violence and instability, but also extreme poverty and recurrent food shortages.
There are, however, glimmers of hope. For one, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has made overtures to place the well-being of children on its emerging social service agenda.
One significant achievement the country boasts is that it has remained polio free since 2007. Also, despite a prolonged drought affecting over 1.4 million, including 700,000 children, there is visible evidence of declining malnutrition rates. This year, in fact, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) have reported that they're on track to reach up to 50,000 severely malnourished children -- more than double those reached in 2008.
In addition, through the Child Health Days initiative, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) were able to deliver low-cost, high-impact health packages this year to over one million children under the age of five. These interventions included immunization, vitamin A supplementation, de-worming tablets and oral rehydration salts to combat diarrhea caused by contaminated water.
As a former teacher, the issue of education remains close to my heart. Education provides the confidence needed to make the most of a child's abilities. A protective learning environment can help change attitudes about violence while also promoting equality. Keeping schools operational in communities affected by conflict and in camps for the internally displaced is an essential priority for UNICEF in Somalia, as is providing incentives and training for teachers. This year, in the central southern zone, 89,000 out-of-school or emergency affected children gained access to primary education.
Last month, after being one of only two countries to not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Somali Transitional Government signaled their intention to join the community of nations who have already adopted this groundbreaking human rights treaty. This is a tremendous step in the right direction. But more still needs to be done. A minimum of $12 million is needed to respond to the emergency needs of the Somali population in the first quarter of 2010.
Let's pledge to make a difference this holiday season for the children of Somalia so that the next milestone the current generation marks will be one of dreams realized for their children.
Learn more about the situation in Somalia and help UNICEF bring hope to children in this area through Unicef USA.