[Viewpoint] Equal rights for North’s kids

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[Viewpoint] Equal rights for North’s kids

It was a rainy August morning in Yonthan, North Korea. I was being welcomed into the second-floor apartment of Jang Jong-ok, a slight woman of about 30. This was my second visit to the country as regional director of Unicef but the first time I was entering a North Korean home.

The apartment was neat and tidy and portraits of the leaders occupied places of pride in the sitting room where I and my colleagues from Unicef’s Pyongyang office sat to chat with Jong-ok.

Her 20-month-old baby Choi was on her lap. Both mother and daughter looked underweight. Jong-ok told us that she could not produce enough breast milk for her baby. Baby Choi looked listless, but had a small sachet of Plumpy Nut in her little hands.

Mother and daughter were enrolled in a Unicef pilot project where volunteers, mostly young women working as caregivers in the children’s nursery, visited homes to locate children who needed help and referred them to doctors in the local clinic.

The children were then examined, their nutritional status assessed, and put on a regime of regular checkups and treatment. After eight weeks of this intervention called “Community-based Management of Severe Acute Malnutrition,” little Choi is now able, for the first time, to stand on her own two little feet.

Unicef opened an office in Pyongyang in 1997 when the country was in the grip of famine. Humanitarian support had started coming from South Korea through Unicef in1996. The work in countering child malnutrition - starting with the health of mothers and responding to children who are on a downward slope towards malnutrition, like baby Choi - continues to be a major focus of Unicef’s work in the country.

Malnutrition has many causes. The chronic shortage of food and fertilizer is a major factor in North Korea. But also important is the shortage of clean water and sanitation that contribute to diarrhea and other diseases that sap the vitality of children and adults.

Unicef has been helping design and establish gravity-fed water systems that do not depend on electricity, which is in short supply. I visited the gravity-fed water system for Yonthan, in North Hwanghae Province, which filters mountain spring water and supplies it to homes, schools and clinics. Jong-ok told us that diarrhea in her family sharply decreased after the new water system was built two years ago.

Jang-ok took us to her spotless kitchen, where her mother lit a small stove run on biogas coming from a facility set up by Unicef that disposes of wastewater and sewage.

Built with help from a German firm, this facility brings wastewater treated with sand and gravel filters from 31 clusters of apartments to a “wetland” that is being excavated on the outskirts of the town that will make the water clean enough for reuse in agriculture or for release back into the river.

Good health stems from good knowledge. I watched teachers being trained at Yonthan’s Teacher Training Centre, including on how to use an illustrated “Hygiene Picture Book” that helps young students learn the benefits of hygiene practices such as regular hand washing with soap which helps ward off disease.

The Teachers Training Centre is a bright, newly-renovated building equipped with modern teaching aids and books. Unicef contributed 30 percent of its cost.

The rest came from the local community, including building materials and labor. When local communities share in the investment, it not only makes for greater ownership and commitment but also ensures that the dollar of external assistance leverages many more from local resources for the benefit of the vulnerable, including women and children.

All over the world, Unicef advocates that investing in children is the best investment that any country can make. It also brings to life the founding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - which marks its 20th anniversary this year - that all children everywhere have equal rights.

Unicef is able to make a difference in the lives of children in North Korea because of the support received from the international community, including South Korea.

This support and partnership are laying the foundation for peace and solidarity by protecting humanity’s most precious resource and hope for the future: children.

*The writer is Unicef’s Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific

by Anupama Rao Singh
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