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World: No Fanfare Marks Universal Children's Day

By Andrea Boyle

Today is a holiday, but no parades or conferences are scheduled, no special performance or dinners taking place. Where is the requisite fanfare? Has the world abandoned the celebration of Universal Children's Day? RFE/RL looks into whether this day means something to people around the globe, or if it's just another day on the calendar.

Prague, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today is Universal Children's Day. If you didn't know that, don't worry. You're not alone in your ignorance. The majority of people are probably also unaware.

Unlike Earth Day -- a holiday that has gained popularity worldwide -- Universal Children's Day prompts few speeches or special events. In many countries, it is little more than a note on the calendar.

In 1954, the United Nations recommended the observation of Universal Children's Day. It encouraged every nation to mark "a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children and of activity promoting the welfare of the world's children."

While the UN did not recommend a specific date for the holiday, most nations and advocacy groups chose this day to commemorate the event. It was on this day in 1959 that the UN General Assembly adopted its Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In 1989, it did the same for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The declaration details children's rights as human beings and proclaims that as children they are entitled to special care and assistance. The convention reaffirmed these statements and recognized the importance of improving the lives of children living in underdeveloped countries.

Angela Hawke, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, the UN's Children's Fund, says the UN never planned for a coordinated effort to be made on any one day in particular. "The idea is that people who want to mark this day pick the best day of the year to get the maximum impact for children," she said. "So, if that's 20 November, if 20 November works for them, then that's absolutely fine. However, if there's another time of year that might be better, then that's also fine."

Jorge Restrepo, a spokesman for the NGO Defense for Children International, says the member groups in its global network commemorate Universal Children's Day, but decide individually how to mark the day. Some are undertaking ambitious programs -- the chapter in Angola, for example, is hosting a football game played by former child soldiers. Others are more low-key. The Palestinian branch will issue a press release while the Swiss are distributing a CD-ROM. Restrepo says that the day simply highlights what he considers a year-round undertaking.

"It's an important day, but in many senses, defending the rights of children is 365-days-a-year hard work. And that's what is important to remember -- that it's not just on 20 November only but on every day," Restrepo said.

John Egenaes of the human rights watchdog Amnesty International says the holiday might not be marked with much pomp and circumstance, but it does afford his group an added opportunity to draw attention to injustices committed against children. "All these international days to some extent have that side to them -- that they're not widely known, that they're something some people just tick off [on the calendar]," he said. "For us, it's different, because although we work with children's cases every day all through the year, it does give us the possibility to try to put more emphasis on it."

He says Universal Children's Day can, at the very least, be used as a public relations tool and a way to remind politicians and the public about hardship and neglect suffered by many of the world's children. "It is a day where one can address all sorts of institutions and levels of society with this special theme," Egenaes said. "And it's, should I say, a bit more difficult for the people in power to avoid it because it does have a sort of hook that might sort of hook onto them. I don't think it's a lot more than that, but that is at least something."

Amnesty, for its part, is using today to draw attention to specific problems such as the plight of mentally handicapped children in Russia and children who were orphaned, kidnapped, or abandoned during the armed conflict in El Salvador.