A human rights approach to reducing child deaths


Every year, more than 6 million children will die before their fifth birthday – more than the populations of Nicaragua, Norway or New Zealand. And most of these deaths could be prevented, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein.  

This makes infant child mortality not just a health matter, but a human rights concern, he said.

“When the State is not doing what it can to prevent such deaths, it is defaulting not only on its legal obligations but on its moral obligations to its own people,” he said. “And about this, let there be no doubt: if local officials, relevant ministers, heads of government or heads of state are not doing what they should to uphold the rights of these – the smallest, most vulnerable of their people – then such omissions may well amount to criminal negligence.”

Zeid made his comments as part of a panel discussion at the launch of a new technical guidance note, at the 27th session of the Human Rights Council. The note lists tangible, concrete measures that States can take, using a human rights-based approach to reduce and eliminate preventable mortality and morbidly of children under five years of age.

The note was created in cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) with support from leading human rights and health experts. It contains advice on legislation, coordination, planning, budgeting, implementation and international cooperation related to the issue.

Child mortality and morbidity rates have decreased since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 1990. The number of children worldwide who die before the age of five has more than halved – from nearly 13 million a year to just over 6 million.

Yet still children, particularly in vulnerable communities, are dying, said Dr. Tarek Meguid, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in Mnazi Mmoja Hospital in   Tanzania and one of the five panel members at the launch.

“It is because they are poor, they are voiceless and they are female and they are small,” he said.  “The grim reality is that we don’t need a miracle drug. We just have to think that these women, these children are worthwhile.”

Inequality is at the root of preventable child deaths, said Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health for WHO. For children living in the poorest communities, the first day of life can be the most risky. “We need to focus our efforts on these more vulnerable populations,” she said.

The best way to keep the technical note from sitting on the shelf as just another unused policy is to start now integrating human rights approaches into your work, said Joy Phumaphi, Executive Secretary of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance,  and co-Chair of the Independent Expert Review Group on Women’s and Children’s Health and former Minister of Health of Botswana.

“We don’t need to wait,” she said. “Human rights should define the way we live and work no matter what hat we wear.”

 25 September 2014

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