Flanked by a young Romanian woman who as a teenager had been forced to work in an Italian brothel, and an Indian teen who was denied schooling at age 9, the new head of UNICEF called on nations Wednesday to work harder to protect millions of "invisible" children worldwide who are exploited and abused. Ann M. Veneman, a former U.S. agriculture secretary who became executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund in May, succeeding onetime New York City Council President Carol Bellamy, used the release of the annual State of the World's Children report to call attention to the large number of youngsters whose plight goes unrecognized.
"Hundreds of millions of children across the world are missing from public view," Veneman said. "They are the world's most vulnerable children, trapped in circumstances that push them to the margins and shadows of society."She cited children whose births are never registered, estimated to number 50 million a year; those cast out after their parents' death; forced into adult roles by poverty; and exploited by the commercial sex industry or forced to engage in labor or serve as soldiers.
"The situation of these children perpetuates poverty, holds back national development and impeded development of the Millennium Development Goals," she said, referring to global poverty eradication targets.
Children being trafficked for sex and other forms of exploitation, who number an estimated 1.2 million a year, are traded as commodities and subjected to "unspeakable abuses," she said, even in developed countries.
Referring to the novels of Charles Dickens that lifted a veil on the suffering of orphans, street children and child laborers in Victorian England, Veneman said children today continue to endure similar plights "in modern settings all around the world."
Children are not being protected or given the services they need and in many cases are "denied their very childhood," said Veneman, a native Californian who served as the state's secretary of food and agriculture before joining the Bush administration.
Beside her, Guriya Khatun, a 14-year-old from northern India, spoke through an interpreter, telling how her impoverished Muslim parents refused to let her study and sent her to work in the fields at age 9. Through her persistence, she recounted, she finally got herself enrolled in school and learned to read and write two years ago, and now has caught up with the seventh grade.
"I say to children, no matter how difficult, never give up your dreams to study," Guriya said, speaking in a loud, confident voice.
Corina Panaite, a 20-year-old Romanian from a destitute family, had a darker story to tell. She told how at 18 she was lured by the promise of a job waiting tables in Ireland by a man who instead took her to Italy and forced her into prostitution until she was freed by police.
After medical and psychological treatment, she has been repatriated to Romania and is working with other girls and young women who have been similarly exploited, reports Los Angeles Times. I.L.