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A Visit to UNICEF Mali

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Rokía Traoré

...what touched me profoundly was one of the invited youngsters sitting in front of me. When the Director of the Study, Graca Machel, was speaking directly to the children, saying "we have not forgotten you, we are here to help you. It is for you that we have gone through these efforts," the child started to sob so violently that her entire body shook. Although I do not know the girl, it was very evident that she was in great pain. Unfortunately, a child growing up in conflict will never be a child again. But thanks to UNICEF, there will at least be hope.

--Adriana Vink, former UNICEF staff member at ceremony for UN Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

This year, 1999, somewhere on the planet, a child will be born and the world's population will reach six billion people for the first time in human history. No one knows who that child is: she or he might even be your new baby sister or brother! However, out of the 130 million children expected to be born this year, chances are high that this six-billionth person is one who is born into poverty, not wealth. This child is probably born into a family where the mother or father earns less than $1US every day. Who knows? That child could be born in Mali. And, think about this: that child, if born in a poor country like Mali, probably would not live to see their fifth birthday.

The United Nations publishes a compilation of articles and lists called the Progress of Nations every year, and this year, 1999, one list really struck my attention. Canada (my birth country), Costa Rica (where we interviewed Oscar Arias) and the United States all have a rating of "less than five" in terms of Child Risk. This Child Risk Index takes five numbers and combines them into a country's rating for how dangerous it is for a child to live there. The five numbers are: the rate of child mortality under the age of five; the number of children without adequate nutrition; the percentage of children not attending school; the level of conflict and security; and the prevalence of people with AIDS.

The statistics are sobering. Mali, for example, has a Child Risk Index rating of 64, next to Mozambique (63), and Chad (67). Sub-Saharan Africa rates at 61 in terms of regional risk, because the lower risk of being a child in a country like South Africa (25) or Mauritius (11) counterbalances the higher risk of being a child in a country like Angola (96) or Somalia (92). Comparatively speaking, the regional risk of Europe stands at 6, and the regional risk of North/Central/South America (where we visited during the Latin America trek) stands at 10. The risk of being a child in Mali is more than double the risk of being a child in the world as a whole, 30 (this number is the combined risk of all the countries together).

Why do such differences exist? There are many reasons, but here's one fact to commit to memory. The richest one-fifth of the world's population uses 82 times more resources - more water, more land, more oil-- than the poorest one-fifth. To put that into perspective, let's think of the population of the world (a little more than 5.9 billion) as being 10 people. If that's so, then the two richest people consume way more than their share (about 86%) of the world's resources.

Publications by organizations like the United Nations help display the differences between the rich and poor countries of the world. They keep an eye on how different countries address their diverse problems, including infant mortality, access to vitamin A, rates of HIV infection, and the prevalence of child labor. They also help spread the word about possible solutions.

Can anyone help that six-billionth child, and the millions of other children who live in poverty all over the world, without adequate food, health care or vaccinations, sanitation, or even water?

I knew about UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), mostly through their greeting cards, and saw the UNICEF sign near our hotel in the Magnambougou subdivision of Bamako. I decided to pay them a visit to learn more about what they do in the defense of children.

Of course, I promptly got lost in the neighborhood. I asked many of the neighbors and shop owners for directions until I finally found the office, set back from the road with a flag at the entrance. Entering the air-conditioned reception room, one immediately notices the brightly-colored quilts of smiling children gracing the walls. Because it was almost closing time, the receptionists suggested I return later, but Mr. Adama Sidibe took a few moments to show me the library, stuffed chockablock with documents, brochures, and books about children.

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larger view
The UNICEF flag against a cloudy Malian sky
UNICEF was created in December 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, which devastated many countries and set back the education and development of thousands of children. UNICEF pays specific attention to children, and grew from a ragtag group with a New York branch of less than 150 people to a large, well-established and highly structured organization with branches throughout the world. Name a country and UNICEF probably holds a bureau there, staffed with people like Mr. Sidibe, office workers, administrators, managers, and field workers.

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Smiling children adorn this UNICEF quilt

Many of you know how much we World Trekkers have enjoyed interviewing Nobel Peace Prize winners along our journey, including Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala, Oscar Arias Sanchez in Costa Rica, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel in Argentina. But did you know that UNICEF, as an organization, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, for its efforts to improve the lives of children and their families? Pretty cool, eh?

UNICEF celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996. Fifty years of building latrines, digging wells and installing pumps for clean water, helping with breast-feeding programs for infants, vaccinating children, declaring "corridors of peace" in war zones, and helping guide the countries of the world to take care of their children. "It is almost ten years ago," writes Kofi A. Annan, the Secretary-General to the United Nations, "that directors and representatives of more than 150 countries met for a Convention on the Rights of the Child [2 September 1990] and established a number of ambitious objectives in favor of children and their development during the '90s."

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Mr. Adama Sidibe showed me around the library
In those objectives, UNICEF worked hard to have the best interests of people less than 18 years old taken into account. For example, the Convention includes: Article 6, your right to survive and develop; Article 24, your right to the highest available standard of health care; Articles 12 and 13, your right to express views and receive information (so speak up!); and Article 7, your right to a name and a nationality. And, get this: You have a right, under Article 31 of the play! ("You gotta fight! For your right! To Paaaarr-ty!") By mid-September of 1996 the Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by all countries except the Cook Islands, Oman, Somalia, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, who for a number of complicating factors, declined to sign.

A few of UNICEF's many informative pamphlets
Five years ago, Mali had highest maternal mortality rate in the world. If you were a girl in Mali, you had a one in six chance of dying during pregnancy. Those odds are worse than Las Vegas! On average, two thousand mothers died per 100,000 live births. When I walk in the market, I see evidence of the constant struggle mothers have here with their children: the heat sometimes seems overwhelming, and I've seen mothers trying to get their children to drink water and juices from very small plastic bags sold for 50 CFA's in the street. One mother on the green vans that run back and forth into town from Magnambougou told me her son was only 15 months old.
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Some of the children that UNICEF hopes to help
He had emaciated eyes and he continually cried, during the whole ride, for a mixture of porridge and water that she fed him, as well as pieces of small banana. The statistics have a human face here, which encourages me to learn more about Mali, its people, and how they are working to empower themselves and their communities. Tune in next time for more Mali the meantime you can visit the UNICEF website at and find out how you can help slow the world's population growth in today's Making a Difference.

UNICEF holiday cards, like Girl Scout cookies and Easter Seals, are something that I try to purchase but sometimes don't really know about. Do they really help? Does the money go to a good cause? What happens on the other end?

I had the opportunity to find out the story of UNICEF cards in Mali at the Bamako UNICEF office...

Come back in time with me to the cold, bitter winter of 1946-47 in Rudolfov, Czechoslovakia (the current Czech Republic). The village has a diminishing supply of milk, warm clothing, and even medications due to the war. People are cold. Your classmates can't even walk to school because they don't have good shoes. But one day, seemingly out of nowhere, boxes and boxes of supplies --rations, clothing, and medicines-- start to arrive, all marked "UNICEF". To say thank you for the aid that her family receives, your classmate, Jitka Samova, seven years old, draws a beautiful picture. Her design, in vibrant colors, shows five girls holding hands around a maypole, and her teacher Mr. Bartouska likes it so much he sends it to the UNICEF bureau in Prague. Everyone there likes it so much they send it to the Director General, who says it's a perfect message of hope, joy, and mutual dependence. By 1949, the UNICEF staff reproduces Jitka's design on a holiday greeting card, and they circulate it amongst themselves.

From that first card, based on a young girl's design, grew the UNICEF Greeting Cards Project. Since then, more than 2.5 billion cards have been sold. In the last fifty years, card sales have raised more than $300 million US to support UNICEF activities in 120 countries. You've probably seen, or even sent, UNICEF greeting cards, maybe with pictures of Africa, during the holiday season.

How does that help Mali? On November 9, 1993, the Malian First Lady officially launched the sale of greeting cards to help pay for projects jointly organized between the Malian government and UNICEF. These projects included work in health, education, nutrition, water and sanitation, urban development, and AIDS. For example, during 1994, UNICEF contributed 633 million CFA's towards the Centre National d'Immunisation for vaccinations for children. UNICEF helped with the creation and revitalization of 110 health centers that year, which grew to 197 similar centers by 1997. Also, UNICEF intervened in the spread of guinea worm in more than a thousand villages in the Mopti region, benefiting more than 734,000 Malians.

The funds received from the sale of cards and other products permit the vaccination of children, and the opportunity to save millions of lives against diseases that you're probably already protected against: rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, and poliomyelitis. So that's what happens when you buy the UNICEF holiday cards: be in good cheer when you send them. You really do make a difference!


Monica - English, French, or Bambara: Which language do we speak today?
Kavitha - Muslim Devotion: Prayers Five Times A Day!
Jasmine - Rain, Rain, Go Away
Making A Difference - Cracking Down on Population Growth

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