National News

UNICEF chief lauds courage of Nigerian girls

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Efforts to improve the health of newborns and their mothers in poor countries must also include protecting them from violence, such as the terror caused by Boko Haram in Nigeria, says the head of the UN Children's Fund.

UNICEF chief Anthony Lake offered that assessment Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press prior to the opening of Stephen Harper's international conference on maternal, newborn and child health.

Lake lauded the prime minister's leadership in helping children and mothers in developing countries as he heaped praise on the courage of the teenage girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

He said he would raise his concerns about child protection in a private meeting Wednesday with Harper's international development minister, Christian Paradis.

"Paradis is passionate about the protection issue," Lake said in a wide-ranging interview.

As for Harper, Lake said: "He has led the way on this and Canada has delivered and is delivering, again 80 per cent of its commitment at Muskoka."

Harper opened the summit by joining Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete for a scripted question-and-answer session moderated by veteran Canadian aid worker Rosemary McCarney, head of Plan Canada.

"These are things that are really the right thing to do," Harper said.

Harper said many of the steps that can be taken to help new mothers and young children are cheap and known to health professionals.

"We know what the interventions are that can greatly reduce maternal and child mortality, early childhood mortality."

Kikwete said the issue needed a champion and "Prime Minister Harper is that champion."

Both leaders were appointed co-chairs of the UN commission on accountability for women's and children's health in the fall of 2010, months following the G8, where Harper unveiled the Muskoka Initiative.

He committed $2.8 billion over five years, and a coalition of Canadian agencies is calling on him to up the ante to $3.25 billion.

Harper is expected to make a major funding announcement on Thursday, something he hinted at broadly during the discussion.

"The pitch I'll be making is the following: if we were able to do these things in 2009 and 2010 at the absolute worst point in the global economy and the management of most of our national budgets, surely we can do it moving forward."

At a side event Wednesday at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the government announced a $98-million contribution to the UN World Food Program to improve nutrition, a key area that Canada's programming on kids and moms is targeting.

But Lake said the fact that so many children and young mothers are exposed to violent conflict also needs to be addressed.

"We are understanding more and more (that) yes, this is about their health, this is about their nutrition — and Canada, by the way, has led on nutrition … but it's also about protection and violence."

He said progress on the issue can only be made by "protecting the kids from violence and mothers from violence, and nutrition and health, all in one package."

The Boko Haram kidnapping was on the minds of many at the three-day gathering, which will hear from philanthropist Melinda Gates, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Aga Khan and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Lake said the Nigerian kidnapping draws attention to one of the underlying causes of the health threats faced by young mothers and girls in impoverished, war-torn countries: the importance of overcoming the threat to girls' education posed by militant groups.

"The words almost fail me about how strongly I feel about this," said Lake, who has been a senior adviser to U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

"These are not victims. These are people who are acting with greater courage than I think you or I could probably summon under horrendous circumstances. And we shouldn't be condescending to them by saying we are saving them. We are supporting them."

Lake suggested western donors, weary of funding one crisis after another, should adjust their view of people in developing countries who persevere in the face of dire circumstances, including natural disasters.

Lake and other high-profile guests are to address the conference in the coming days, where Harper is expected to announce more funds.

"We are making progress and we have to make a whole lot more progress," said Lake.

Since 1990, the deaths of mothers in childbirth and among under age five children have been cut in half, but each year, 2.9 million newborn babies die, while 2.6 million are stillborn, mostly in African countries.

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