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Canada Must Show the World How To Care For 'Invisible' Children

09/24/2014 05:45 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST

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Dave Toycen is at the United Nations General Assembly, championing children like baby Amini. A new poll indicates that 88 per cent of Canadians feel children in conflict zones or on society's margins should be front and centre in aid efforts, even if they're harder to reach.

In a sprawling refugee camp in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Amini sits huddled on the lap of her teenaged sister. Their rickety shelter, scant protection from the dangers of the camp, is little more than sticks and rags. No mother or father call the girls inside for dinner each night. Both parents were killed in an attack on the family's village. Because the sisters are unaccompanied minors, they're not eligible for food assistance in the camp.

Almost no one in the world knows two-year-old Amini's name, beyond her sister Neena and the refugee women who share their food rations with the children. To her country's government, the little girl is uncounted and therefore invisible.

Millions of children around the world are in similar situations. Many have been sent fleeing from the stability of their home communities, because of war and conflict. Others live in regions so isolated that no one with the ability to help has ever laid eyes on them. Still others are buried deep in urban slums, shunned as members of an ethnic minority, or discounted as worthless because of a disability.

Canada has the power to lead the way in helping these invisible children, and 88 per cent of Canadians believe that we must. A new poll commissioned by World Vision Canada found that Canadians overwhelmingly believe that children who live in conflict zones or on the margins of society should be front and centre in aid efforts, even if, like Amini, they are harder to reach. And 91 per cent of Canadians think that children dying so young that they haven't even reached their fifth birthday in unacceptable, no matter where they live in the world.

As the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convenes this week, delegates will focus on a new framework for reducing child poverty once the deadline for the current Millennium Development Goals framework expires in 2015. The goals have inspired the global community to create better health and living standards in many of the world's countries. Yet progress has been uneven, especially for vulnerable children struggling to survive in situations where they're isolated, overlooked or actively persecuted.

Many of the solutions for keeping even the world's most vulnerable children alive and healthy are staggeringly simple ones. Birth certificates are of critical importance. Unless children are registered at birth, they are invisible to their national health systems and can't receive care. Many governments do have healthcare systems with provisions for even the very poorest, but such plans are only as robust as the number of children in the database. And they make few provisions for girls and boys whose certificates were lost when they fled attacks on their home villages.

Other simple, high-impact solutions include vitamins, immunizations, iron supplements, and clean water. And, where a baby's mother is alive, breastfeeding from birth to boost immune systems from the start.

Canada can lead other UNGA members to contribute robustly to the new blueprint for child health past 2015. Since 2010, our country has been a consistent and inspirational champion for child and maternal health, helping to drive down global child mortality rates. A recent poll confirms that Canadians want their country to remain a global leader on both child health and the health of their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, and as they feed and nurture their newborns.

The UNGA is a key moment for Prime Minister Harper to encourage other governments to step up with pledges and commitments. It's not just an honourable role to play on the world stage; it's a responsibility to children whose lives hang in the very balance.

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