Cozy Christmas or child rights crisis?

We have been given the unique opportunity to have an interview with Pernilla Baralt, Executive Director of UNICEF Sweden. With her help, we get an insight into how the well-being of children and young people around the world looks like and how it is affected during holidays. She has previously worked for the EU Commission in development, development aid, climate, and environmental issues as well as at the Government Offices. When she worked at the Government Offices, she was the State Secretary responsible for creating the proposition to make the Convention on the Rights of the Child Swedish law.

Pernilla Baralt, Executive Director of UNICEF Sweden

How come you work for UNICEF?

“I think that all children should feel good, that they have the right to do so. Children’s well-being and health are probably the most important things you can give a society and it is how we create confident adults and a sustainable society. Everything is connected. In order to have a better society, the children’s needs and rights need to be respected. All children have the right to develop, go to school, live without violence and feel good both physically and mentally. Through my work, I want to contribute to making this a reality to every child, both nationally and globally.”

What are your own experiences of Christmas?

“I love Christmas, I prefer to sit in my mom’s and dad’s little living room in front of the open fire, to just relax and spend time with my loved ones. If there are children in the picture, I want it to be their day! To hang out with both family and friends, cuddling indoors as well as being able to go out walking in the woods is the best!”

Due to ongoing conflicts and disasters as well as the pandemic’s negative consequences for children, UNICEFs work for the most vulnerable children is more important than ever. UNICEF operates in 190 countries. UNICEFs work is ongoing and forces on giving more children access to health care, nutrition, education and the security they are entitled to. UNICEF also works preventively to influence governments to adopt laws that promote children’s rights and with concrete efforts against for example violence, and better mental health. Differences between children in the world become even bigger and more noticeable during the holidays. Not least because the schools and various social initiatives close. The children who are well, often get it even better during Christmas and children in vulnerable situations often get it even worse. The difference between children and their situations during the holidays gets even more clear and confirmed. For the children who get to celebrate Christmas without their family, who live alone in refugee camps or on the run UNICEF’s efforts can be the difference between life and death, between security, joy, fear and hunger.

Even before the pandemic, the world was unfortunately far from achieving the Sustainable Development goals in Agenda 2030, especially the goals regarding poverty, child mortality and education. Because of the pandemic, some societies have closed children’s “safe zone”, school. As many as 92% of the world’s children have been affected by school closures. More than 9 out of 10 children have not been able to go to school for long periods and close to millions of children have still not been allowed to return to school! The negative consequences of the closures are many, including an increase in child labor and child marriage. School is, as said, many childrens safe zones and their way of accessing the most basic needs in home such as clean water and food. So, working on a typical Wednesday or Christmas Eve does not matter to organizations like UNICEF, this work must go on constantly to save lives and overcome these injustices and discrimination of children and human rights.

How does UNICEF work during the holidays?

“In Afghanistan, 1 million children are extremely malnourished. As many families have no food, UNICEF is currently making extra efforts in these areas. Among other things, they distribute nut cream and provide health centers with other life-saving efforts. Children’s small bodies are so incredibly fragile, so they are hit harder by hunger than adults and can have lifelong but also brain development.”

“UNICEF coworkers try to compensate and do what we can to create a safe zone and during the holidays, to create some Christmas feeling. Thanks to the many individuals that contribute and donates gifts, we can provide children with warm clothes and school supplies. Countries and regions have different holidays, but the differences and inequalities between children are usually even more clear during the holidays and the need for support during this time is extra urgent.” 

Every other year, UNICEF publishes a report; “The status of the world’s children”. It highlights a specific topic each year based on data collected from all countries in the world. The latest report highlights the mental health of children and young people around the world. A topic that is often not talked about enough. Unfortunately, we can see that the mental health of children and young people have deteriorated, not least in connection with the pandemic and the reduction in important societal functions and isolation it has often entailed. This is something we need to talk more about, not least with children and young people. What is needed to prevent and best support the person who is feeling unwell.

Now when Christmas is around the corner, think about what you can do to give children a better Christmas? Everyone can do something, big or small, everything helps. To contribute to make life a little better for the children, in our vicinity or far away, might be the best Christmas present for everyone. We can always do better, let us all work together for a brighter future. Merry Christmas to all of you and let’s hope for a better 2022!

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