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Author and former child soldier Ishmael Beah signs on as UNICEF advocate

Author and former child soldier Ishmael Beah signs on as UNICEF advocate

I. Beah at his book launch event in 2006
Author and former child soldier Ishmael Beah was appointed today as a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Advocate for Children Affected by War, the agency announced as it marked the 18th anniversary of the landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Ishmael Beah speaks on behalf of young people around the world whose childhoods have been scarred by violence, deprivation, and other violations of their rights,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman, calling the new Advocate “an eloquent symbol of hope for young victims of violence, as well as those working to demobilize and rehabilitate children caught up in armed conflict.”

“As a child soldier, your rights are constantly violated,” said Mr. Beah, who was forcibly recruited in his native Sierra Leone when he was only 13. More than two years later UNICEF negotiated with warlords for the release of Mr. Beah and other child combatants and placed him in a rehabilitation programme.

After finding his way to New York and finishing his education, Mr. Beah published his memoir, A Long Way Gone, which UNICEF said has helped to foster better understanding of the life of a child soldier.

“For many observers, a child who has known nothing but war, a child for whom the Kalashnikov is the only way to make a living and for whom the bush is the most welcoming community, is a child lost forever for peace and development. I contest this view,” he said. “For the sake of these children it is essential to prove that another life is possible.”

The announcement of Mr. Beah’s appointment coincided with the 18th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty created to help prevent the kind of suffering that he endured.

Approved by the UN General Assembly on 20 November 1989, the treaty sets the ground rules for a better life for all children, and is the most widely ratified human rights agreement in the world.

Marking the anniversary in Kabul, UNICEF called on the Afghan Government and civil society to renew their joint commitment to its principles.

In a news release, the agency noted that progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, with the enrolment of 6 million children in schools, an increase in access to clean water and sanitation for half a million children, the empowerment of 62,500 women with literacy courses, and a reduction in infant mortality from 165 per 1,000 live births in 2001 to 135 per 1,000 live births in 2006.

But the agency noted that in Afghanistan, two generations “have grown up knowing mostly conflict, insecurity, displacement and isolation resulting in the breakdown of support mechanisms within families, schools and communities, causing the loss of their rights and ability to reach their full potential.”

UNICEF is supporting a government initiative to create Child Protection Action Networks, now active in 29 provinces, which helps to secure the rights of children in Afghanistan.

“We have a duty to ensure that children in Afghanistan enjoy their right to live a life free from violence,” said Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) voiced hope that the country’s children will have the future free from violence or dislocation that they deserve.

Commemorating the treaty’s anniversary, the UN issued a news release voicing alarm that only one in three Iraqi children under the age of five has access to safe drinking water. In addition, over one fifth of children under five suffer from stunting and 4.8 per cent from wasting, while 7.6 per cent are underweight. Meanwhile, the infant mortality rate is estimated at 35 per 1,000.

“The UN is equally troubled that more than 220,000 school children have been displaced from their homes since early 2006, disrupting their access to proper schooling.”

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, noted that the UN played an active role in child vaccination campaigns, helped fight a recent epidemic of cholera and assisted Iraqi schoolchildren with books and materials. “However, we all need to do much more to relieve the stress of Iraq’s children, and help ensure their proper growth into adulthood as they are the future of the country.”