The Holy See
back up


Geneva, Switzerland
Wednesday, 21 May 2003


Mr President,
Distinguished Ministers,
Honourable Participants:

Mr President, I greet you respectfully and congratulate you on your able chairmanship of this Assembly.

In the past decade, more than 2 million children have been in armed conflicts, 6 million were disabled and tens of thousands mutilated by anti-personnel landmines; in 2002, 300,000 children were recruited as soldiers; more than 4.3 million children have recently died from AIDS: in Africa alone 7,000 children are infected every day, and AIDS has orphaned more than 14 million. Poverty continues to be the principal cause of children's diseases. A total of 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Even in the richest countries, one child in every six lives below the poverty line.

The gap between rich and poor is constantly widening; 30 percent of children under 5 suffer from hunger or malnutrition, and 50 percent of the entire population of Sub-Saharan Africa lacks drinking water.

Two hundred-fifty million children under the age of 15 work, and between 50 and 60 million of them work in dangerous conditions. According to the International Labour Organization, 120 million children of both sexes, from the ages of 5 to 14, work full time, many of them six days a week and some for seven. They are frequently forced to work locked up in badly-lit rooms without ventilation, with armed guards to prevent them from escaping.

Today, many children and adolescents are left to themselves and their instincts. Their environment is the Internet and the television. Stereo compact disk players, playstations, digital cameras and cellular phones have spread everywhere. There is no control of television programmes or of the Internet, on which children surf without any kind of moral guidance. The sex trade, pedophilia, violence at school, crimes and gangs have multiplied. According to figures provided by the [Italian] Central Statistics Office (ISTAT), in many countries a school-age child will have spent 15,000 hours in front of the television and will have "watched" 18,000 murders in an atmosphere of violence, drugs and sex.

Many families have given up their educational task. The father and mother work and have no time for their children. They give them neither love nor care, nor do they have any personal communication with them, let alone form their moral conscience or teach them to distinguish between good and bad. It is even worse when families break up and children are separated. School education is often reduced to mere information, renouncing authentic education since the prevailing norm is "permissiveness", as people think that rules would damage the child's rights to self-determination.

In the face of the disturbing surroundings in which children live, WHO's seven directions for the future seem to me to be very satisfactory. In fact, I think priority should be given to mother and child health care; prevention of infantile contagious diseases; accidents should be avoided and the physical environment improved, especially with regard to water, hygiene and health care; environmental pollution; the transmission of disease; contact with dangerous chemical components; caning and accidents; the education of children and adolescents, their psycho-social development; and attention to children in special situations of risk such as "street children".

On our part, recognizing the pressing need for all of the guidelines offered, we insist on two urgent points in order to create a satisfactory environment for the child:  the first is to combat poverty within the current globalized economy with adequate means. An economy centred on itself can only generate forms of injustice at all levels. The economy, whether or not it is globalized, is for the person and not the person for the economy. It is time to take seriously the need for the international common good that we will now call the "global" international good. The inequality that exists between developed and developing countries is absolutely unacceptable.

An equally important point mentioned by the WHO is the psycho-social behaviour and development of the child. The child, as a human person, is a very complex being:  his whole physical, sexual, psychological, mental, economic, social, political and spiritual aspects are interrelated; these elements are like communicating blood vessels and require a holistic and undepartmentalized environment. It is the whole person who has to mature, not merely one of his dimensions. Education should enable the child to carry out his or her project in life; he must know, therefore, who he is, what he desires, what builds him up and what destroys him; and in this choice, he needs clear, firm guidance.

The most important environment for the child's self-understanding is created by affection and love, along with sound guidance from his parents and the whole family; when this is lacking his development is hampered and this is often detrimental to the development of his other dimensions.

The most favourable environment is a healthy family atmosphere created by a stable, solid family that contributes to the human person's balanced growth. School, within the educational community that truly forms the child, must be a context that extends and broadens the family itself. Continuity and reciprocal collaboration between the family and the school community, which introduces and crucially integrates the child in the full social context, are essential.

To conclude, to improve the circumstances of children, it is an essential priority to combat poverty effectively on a national and international scale, and to strengthen the family by providing an authentic school education.

*L'Osservatore Romano. Weekly Edition in English n.26 p.4.