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First Person: A plea for the life-saving properties of vaccines

Dr. Kate O’Brien, Immunization Director at the World Health Organization, devoted her life to immunization after working in a paediatric ward in Haiti, where she saw that a third of the children admitted were dying from diseases that could be prevented through vaccines. 

She explains how the United Nations, and its partners in the COVAX facility, are ensuring that vaccines reach every low-income country in the world.

Dr Kate O’Brien, World Health Organization’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals speaking at the United Nations in Geneva.
Dr Kate O’Brien, World Health Organization’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals speaking at the United Nations in Geneva., by UN News/Daniel Johnson

“Between four and five million lives are saved each year, as a result of being vaccinated. Immunization is one of the most effective, most impactful health interventions in all of human history.

Hundreds of millions of people died from smallpox. It was a dreaded disease and in the late 1700s there was an amazing breakthrough. A British physician, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox – a related disease – were more or less immune from smallpox.

He used that observation to immunize an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, using the cowpox virus. Weeks later, he exposed James Phipps, with the permission of his parents, to smallpox, and he didn’t get sick.

Today smallpox has been eradicated worldwide, because of vaccination.

Another disease that’s targeted for eradication is polio.

Polio leads to limb paralysis and disability, and many people die from the disease.
In places like Pakistan and India, and many other countries, huge campaigns have vaccinated tens of millions of children over a short period of time.

We’re now at the point where polio has been reduced by over 99 per cent, and we’re so close to ending transmission of this virus.

A young girl receives a vaccination against polio from a health worker in Kabul, Afghanistan.

© UNICEF/Frank Dejongh
A young girl receives a vaccination against polio from a health worker in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Dying from a lack of vaccines

I worked in a hospital in Haiti, in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The paediatric ward in that hospital was full of children with measles, diarrhoea, meningitis and tuberculosis. Some were born with tetanus. Every day, about a third of the children admitted to the ward died.

So many of the illnesses that they came in with, were completely preventable with vaccination. 

I decided to devote my career to not only making sure that new vaccines were developed for diseases, but also, and more importantly, ensuring that the vaccines that we already have are completely accessible, completely available, completely safe, and effective for people in every part of the world, no matter what community they’re born in.

An employee works on the production line of a COVID-19 vaccine in India

© UNICEF/ Dhiraj Singh
An employee works on the production line of a COVID-19 vaccine in India

The power of COVAX

We’ve all been living through the COVID-19 pandemic over the last, enormously difficult, couple of years. We’ve seen the incredible development, in a remarkably short period of time, of vaccines that prevent COVID disease, and work against both infection and transmission.

One of the ways that vaccines have been sent into every country around the world is through the COVAX facility. This enables billions of does to be shipped to countries that need them but can’t buy them on their own. 

Eighty per cent of the doses provided to low-income countries are coming through the COVAX facility, and around 92 nations are benefiting. 

A mother receives her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination at a health centre in Obassin, Burkina Faso.

© UNICEF/Frank Dejongh
A mother receives her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination at a health centre in Obassin, Burkina Faso.

A social justice issue

We vaccinate against diseases that are transmissible from person-to-person. This means that, unless we protect ourselves through the use of vaccines, each of us presents some level of risk to someone else.

So, I really think of vaccination as a social equity and social justice issue.

There’s nothing more overwhelming, or more tragic, than a perfectly healthy child who succumbs to an infection that was completely preventable.”

WHO calls for end to ‘insidious’ online marketing of baby formula

The study found companies are paying social media platforms and influencers to gain direct access to pregnant women and mothers at some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives, through personalized content that is often not recognizable as advertising. 

Methods used include apps, virtual support groups or “baby clubs”, promotions and competitions, as well as advice forums or services. 

Driving up sales 

This pervasive marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes, WHO said, thus dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively, as recommended by the UN agency. 

“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Nutrition and Food Safety department. 

“The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.” 

90 posts a day 

The report, titled Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breast-milk substitutes, is the second in a series and follows an initial study, published in February, on how marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding. 

It summarizes findings of new research that sampled and analyzed four million social media posts about infant feeding published between January and June 2021 using a commercial social listening platform.  

The posts reached nearly 2.5 billion people and generated more than 12 million likes, shares, or comments. 

Formula milk companies post content on their social media accounts around 90 times per day, reaching 229 million users, according to the study – or three times the number of people reached by informational posts about breastfeeding from non-commercial accounts.  

Misleading and undermining 

The authors also compiled evidence from social listening research on public online communications, and individual country reports of research that monitors breast-milk substitute promotions.   

They also drew on a recent international study of mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences of formula milk marketing.   

Studies revealed how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.  

End all advertising 

WHO has called on the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing, and on governments to protect children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of formula milk products. 

The proliferation of global digital marketing of formula milk blatantly breaches a landmark international code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, adopted 40 years ago, the agency said.  

The agreement is designed to protect the general public and mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry that negatively impact breastfeeding practices. 

WHO said the fact that these forms of digital marketing can evade the scrutiny of national monitoring and health authorities, shows new approaches to code-implementing regulation and enforcement are required.  

Despite clear evidence that exclusive and continued breastfeeding are key determinants of improved lifelong health for children, women, and communities, far too few children are breastfed as recommended. 

WHO warned the proportion could fall further if current formula milk marketing strategies continue. 

Extreme heat impacting millions across India and Pakistan

The extreme heat is impacting hundreds of millions of people in one of the most densely populated parts of the world, threatening to damage whole ecosystems.

Working closely with health and disaster management agencies, the national meteorological and hydrological departments in both countries, plan to roll out heat health action plans, which have been successful in saving lives in the past few years, said the UN weather agency in a statement.

Cascading impacts

Extreme heat has multiple and cascading impacts not just on human health, but also on ecosystems, agriculture, water and energy supplies and key sectors of the economy.

WMO reiterated its commitment to “ensuring that multi-hazard early warning services reach the most vulnerable”.

Heat Health Action Plans

Both India and Pakistan have successful heat-health early warning systems and action plans already in place, including those specially tailored for urban areas.

They reduce heat mortality and lessen the social impacts of extreme heat, including lost work productivity.

Important lessons have been learned from the past and these are now being shared among all partners of the WMO co-sponsored Global Heat Health Information Network, to enhance capacity in the hard-hit region, WMO advanced.

Intense heat to continue

The India Meteorological Department said that maximum temperatures reached 43-46°C in widespread areas, on 28 April, and that this intense heat will continue until 2 May.

Similar temperatures have also been seen in Pakistan, with daytime temperatures likely to be between 5°C and 8°C above normal in large swathes of the country, said the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

They also warned that in the mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkwa, the unusual heat levels would accelerate snow and ice melt, with the possibility of triggering glacial lake floods – or flash floods in vulnerable areas.

Air quality has also deteriorated, and large swathes of land are at risk of fire outbreaks.

Consistent with ‘changing climate’

According to WMO, “it is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change”, however, the agency continues “it is consistent with what we expect in a changing climate”.

Furthermore, heatwaves are more frequent and more intense and starting earlier than in the past.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its recent Sixth Assessment Report, also said that heatwaves and humid heat stress would be more intense and frequent in South Asia this century.

The current heatwave was triggered by a high-pressure system and follows an extended period of above average temperatures.

India recorded its warmest March on record, with an average maximum temperature of 33.1 ºC, or 1.86 °C above the long-term average.

Pakistan also recorded its warmest March for at least the past 60 years, with a number of stations breaking March records.

In the pre-monsoon period, both India and Pakistan regularly experience excessively high temperatures, especially during May.

Action Plans

India has established a national framework for heat action plans through the National Disaster Management Authority which coordinates a network of state disaster response agencies and city leaders, to prepare for soaring temperatures and ensure that everyone is aware of heatwave protocols.

The city of Ahmedabad in India was the first South Asian city to develop and implement a city-wide heat health adaptation, in 2013, after experiencing a devastating heatwave in 2010. This successful approach has then been expanded to 23 heatwave-prone states and serves to protect more than 130 cities and districts.

In Sindh province, Pakistan, a mother tries to shield her four-year-old daughter from scorching heat.

UNDP/Hira Hashmey
In Sindh province, Pakistan, a mother tries to shield her four-year-old daughter from scorching heat.

Pakistan has also made strides towards protecting public health from heat. In the summer of 2015, a heatwave engulfed much of central and northwest India and eastern Pakistan and was directly or indirectly responsible for several thousand deaths.

The event acted as a wake-up call and led to the development and implementation of the Heat Action Plan in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan.

Typical plans make sure the targeted intervention is a right fit and designed for the heat vulnerable population of a city.

It first identifies the heat hotspots of the city, locates the vulnerable populations in these pockets, and assesses the nature and status of their vulnerability to extreme heat.

Deadly mosque explosion ‘another painful blow to the people of Afghanistan’

The blast at the Khalifa Sahib mosque, located in the Darulaman area in the west of the city, is the latest in a series of attacks on civilian targets in the capital and provinces. 

The explosion tore through the mosque, damaging the roof, which caved in on worshippers, the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) in the country said, citing initial reports. 

Casualties likely higher 

Local hospitals reported far higher casualty figures, with dozens said to be killed and injured, including many children.  

A hospital ran by the non-governmental organization EMERGENCY, alone received more than 20 victims, two of whom were dead on arrival. 

Ramiz Alakbarov, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, issued a statement condemning the “heinous” attack. 

Indiscriminately targeted 

“Today’s blast, which comes on the last Friday of the holy week of Ramadan, is yet another painful blow to the people of Afghanistan who continue to be exposed to unremitting insecurity and violence,” he said.  

“It is unconscionable for civilians to be targeted indiscriminately as they go about their daily business, gathering for prayers, going to school or the market, or on their way to work.”  

On Thursday, at least nine people were killed, and 15 wounded, in separate blasts on two minibuses in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. 

Mr. Alakbarov reiterated that directing attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including mosques, is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law. 

Total disregard for ‘religious sanctity’ 

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the explosion on Friday followed a spate of recent deadly attacks in Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, which appear to have specifically targeted the Hazara, Shia and Sufi minority communities. 

Two UN staff members and their families, who were inside the mosque at the time of the blast, were directly affected. 

“Today’s attack, carried out on the last Friday of the Holy month of Ramadan and on the eve of the Eid-ul-Fitr, totally disregards human lives and religious sanctity. No words are strong enough to condemn this despicable act, targeting a place of worship, as Muslims across Afghanistan prepare to celebrate the Eid,” said Mette Knudsen, the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.  

“Recent attacks against civilians, targeting ethnic and religious minorities, represent a disturbing trend in Afghanistan. These violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws must end immediately.” 

Digital tech investment, critical to workforce in least-developed nations

That’s according to the report Present and future of work in the Least Developed Countries, published on Friday by the International Labour Organization (ILO). 

The report provides an overview of progress and challenges these nations face in terms of structural transformation, a just transition to greener economies, and creation of full and productive employment. 

‘Enormous pressure’ 

“Multiple shocks have put Least Developed Countries under enormous pressure,” said Guy Ryder, the ILO Director-General.  

“However, with the right employment and macroeconomic policy measures, new jobs can be created in both existing and new sectors, along with enhanced productivity and innovation driven by investments in green and digital economic opportunities.” 

The report examines how digital technologies can deliver huge benefits to LDCs, provided investments are made in capital, skills and knowledge, to support inclusive, decent work. 

Numerous vulnerabilities 

The 46 nations represent 12 per cent of the world’s population and are characterized by low income levels, vulnerability to economic and environmental shocks, diminished levels of well-being, extreme poverty and high mortality rates.   

Their vulnerabilities are largely the result of weak productive capacities associated with inadequate infrastructure, as well as limited access to technologies, according to the report.   

Weak institutions, including those relating to work and social protection, are also a factor, while informal employment with no social safety net, is pervasive, representing almost 90 per cent of jobs. 

‘Virtuous circle’ 

The report contains several policy recommendations that promote what the ILO called “human-centred recovery” that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient. 

These measures include expanding international assistance and cooperation to strengthen health care and vaccines, and to avoid unnecessary restrictions and barriers to trade and migration. 

The report also called for strengthening institutions of work and building capacities to enable fundamental rights, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, with active engagement of social partners. 

“This policy focus would create a virtuous circle that improves trust in government, facilitates a progressive shift to high value-added and environmentally sustainable activities, help reduce poverty and inequality and contribute to social justice,” according to the report.   

Mali’s Press ban reflects growing regional intolerance, says UN rights office

Highlighting the “pervasive chilling effect on journalists and bloggers” of the situation in the west African nation, OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said that the move against Radio France International (RFI) and France24 was just “the latest in a string of (similar) actions” by the authorities.

“We are deeply dismayed by the Malian media regulator’s decision to definitively suspend Radio France International (RFI) and France24,” Ms. Shamdasani said. “We call on Mali’s transitional military authorities to reverse this ban and allow independent media to work freely in the country.”

Mali has seen two armed ousters in the last two years, the first in August 2020, the second in May last year.

Switched off

According to OHCHR, RFI and France 24 received their first suspensions on 16 March. Both broadcasters had been accused of airing “false allegations” about reports of human rights violations by the Malian army, Ms. Shamdasani explained, adding that “on 27 April, the High Authority for Communication announced that those provisional suspensions would be ‘definitive’”.

The use of digital surveillance tools has made it increasingly difficult for journalists, bloggers and rights activists to operate safely inside Mali and protect their sources, the OHCHR official said, pointing to the prevailing “climate of self-censorship” among reporters and rights defenders.

Atrocity reports

“More, not less, scrutiny is needed” of the actions of the authorities, Ms. Shamdasani insisted, her comments coming after some 500 people were allegedly summarily executed in Moura, a village in central Mali, earlier this month.

To date, UN investigators have yet to be granted access to Moura, where Malian Armed Forces accompanied by foreign military personnel reportedly carried out killings and other grave violations. Since the atrocity, OHCHR has continued to document other serious allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in many parts of the country.

Amid ongoing regional insecurity outside Mali and across the Sahel caused by climate shocks, violence linked to competition for dwindling resources and mass displacement, Ms. Shamdasani warned that there was “a worrying trend in some of the other countries in West Africa as well, and this applies not only to freedom of expression and then the work of journalists, but also civic space and civil society as a whole; there appears to be a growing intolerance for dissent.”

The problem extends well beyond Africa and is particularly relevant ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 2, the OHCHR official insisted. This year’s theme is Journalism Under Digital Siege.

Danger work

We’re seeing journalists going through tremendous risks to try to get the information out there. We’ve spoken quite often about all the misinformation during the conflict, during the current conflict in Ukraine coming from both sides, really, and the important role of journalists and the tremendous risks that they take to be able to get objective, independent information to us.”

Consign chemical weapons to ‘pages of history’, urges disarmament chief

Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement hailing the “powerful testament” that the convention represents, as a successful example of multilateralism, and the security that it can provide. 

“We cannot allow an erosion of this essential pillar of the disarmament and non-proliferation regime,” he said.  “There can be no justification for their use”.

‘Abhorrent weapons’

The UN chief reminded that the use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international law.

“It is imperative that those responsible for using these abhorrent weapons are identified and held accountable, for the sake of the victims and to prevent any future chemical warfare”.

In its statement, the Security Council underscored its commitment to never use them “anywhere, at any time”, or under “under any circumstance”.

The Council member also reiterated their call for “the complete destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and abandoned chemical weapons,” in accordance with what’s formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (CWC), which entered into force on 29 April 1997.

Moreover, they condemned the use of these indiscriminate, inhumane weapons in conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, over the past quarter of a century. 

For humanity’s sake 

The Council stressed that no one should, “under any circumstances” develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons.

Nor should anyone transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons; engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons; or assist, “encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State party under the Convention.” 

They reaffirmed that “the development, production and use of chemical weapons, as prohibited by the Convention, remained a clear threat to international peace and security”.

Recognizing OPCW

Ambassadors also urged all States that have not yet done so, to become parties to the CWC “without delay”. 

The statement concluded with their recognizing the crucial role of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the body responsible to ensure the “impartial, independent and professional implementation of all provisions of the Convention.”

Faltering compliance

Meanwhile, at a high-level event in the Security Council? making the 25th anniversary, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs argued that the norm against chemical weapons has been repeatedly and fundamentally challenged.

According to Izumi Nakamitsu, this has been driven by a lack of strict compliance by some, a deteriorating international security environment, the rise of dangerous non-State actors, and developments in science and technology.

“The international community must act together to shore up the norm against the use of chemical weapons, to hold to account anyone who would stoop to using them and to revive the global regime,” she said.

Syria challenge

The UN disarmament chief noted that the toxic chemicals have been used with impunity as weapons in Syria, describing it as an immediate challenge facing the CWC.

“The gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations to the OPCW must be resolved,” she said, adding that the Government of the war-torn and divided country, after more than a decade of fighting, must also allow “immediate and unfettered access for the OPCW”.

Without Syria’s cooperation, the international community cannot have confidence that the country is abiding by its commitments.

Address ‘profound violations’

Ms. Nakamitsu said that if we fail to both identify the perpetrators of chemical weapon attacks and hold them accountable, “we will further damage the norm against the use of chemical weapons”.

“Such profound violations of international law cannot continue to go unaddressed and unresolved”.

Highlighting the growing challenges that they pose, the senior UN official urged for stronger collaboration to “restore the taboo against chemical weapons” and finally consign them “to the pages of history”.

Chemical weapons were allegedly used in Aleppo city, Syria.

© UNICEF/Ninja Charbonneau
Chemical weapons were allegedly used in Aleppo city, Syria.

Deaths at sea on migrant routes to Europe almost double, year on year

Of the 2021 total, 1,924 people were reported to have died or gone missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while an additional 1,153 perished or went missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands, according to UNHCR’s newly published report: Protection, saving lives, & solutions for refugees in dangerous Journeys.

Fatalities for 2020, stood at 1,776 for the three routes – reflecting an increase of 478 people since the beginning of this year.

Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats – many of which capsized or were deflated leading to the loss of life,” UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told journalists at a regular press briefing in Geneva.

Dangerous crossings

The sea journey from West African coastal states, such as Senegal and Mauritania to the Canary Islands, is long and perilous and can take up to 10 days.

“Many boats drifted off course or otherwise went missing without trace in these waters,” she said.

Land routes also continue to be highly dangerous, where even greater numbers may have died on journeys through the Sahara Desert and remote border areas, in detention centres, or while being held by smugglers or traffickers.

Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced labour and marriage are just some of the abuses reported by people traveling these routes.

Other challenges

COVID-related border closures impacted movements towards North Africa and European coastal countries, with many desperate refugees and migrants turning to smugglers.

“Continued political instability and conflicts, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions as well as the impact of climate change may increase displacement and dangerous onward movements,” Ms. Mantoo warned.

Plea for help

In launching an updated protection and solutions strategy for refugees on dangerous journeys along routes towards Europe across the Central and Western Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, UNHCR is appealing for support in providing meaningful alternatives to these dangerous journeys and prevent people from becoming victims of traffickers.

The approach calls for increased humanitarian assistance, support and solutions for people in need of international protection and survivors of gross human rights abuses. 

It covers some 25 countries across four regions connected by the same land and sea routes used by migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and includes countries of origin, departure, first asylum, transit and destination.

Much-needed actions

To address protection and solution challenges, UNHCR is also urging States to strengthen humanitarian, development, and peace action.

Additionally, it is calling on regional States in both Africa and Europe to enhance legal frameworks and operational capacities at land and sea borders and in urban centres while also guaranteeing inclusion, youth programming and local community-based development as credible alternatives to dangerous journeys.

“States must ensure unimpeded humanitarian access for the delivery of essential services to people on the move or stranded en route, intercepted at sea, or held in detention centres, and to determine whether they have international protection needs,” the UNHCR spokesperson said.

Treacherous alternative

If these important measures are not carried out, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people and others will continue to move onwards in dangerous journeys in search of safety and protection.

Other people, including migrants, will move in search of a better life, hoping to find work or educational opportunities elsewhere in the absence of sufficient seasonal or longer-term legal pathways for safe and orderly migration.

Risk Mitigation Strategy and 2022 Appeal.

Source: UNHCR
Risk Mitigation Strategy and 2022 Appeal.

General Assembly reviews global progress towards sustainable urbanization

The New Urban Agenda presents a shared global vision for how to build, manage, and live in cities, through urbanization that is well-planned and well-managed.  

It was adopted just one year after countries agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the blueprint for a better future, for people and the planet, by 2030. 

‘Change this trend’ 

In his opening remarks, General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid spoke of how sustainable urbanization can drive change across a variety of interconnected issues, including poverty eradication, climate action, migration, land degradation, economic prosperity, and creation of peaceful societies. 

Yet, he said the New Urban Agenda has often been “under-appreciated”, despite its far-ranging implications.  

“While sustainable urbanization is related to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals, only a few countries can truly claim that they have in place the governance, and the necessary policies, including on inclusive urban planning, capacity development, technology access, and financing necessary to ensure sustainable urbanization,” said Mr. Shahid, adding “we need to change this trend.” 

The high-level meeting brought together Government representatives, city mayors, business leaders, youth, and other constituencies.   

The lead-up was marked by several events including the publication of the latest UN Secretary-General’s report on implementation, five regional forums on sustainable development, and a special meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). 

Address ‘urban inequalities’ 

Full implementation of the New Urban Agenda is at the core of the SDG principle of “leaving no one behind”, said Collen V. Kelapile, the ECOSOC President, who reported on its meeting held last week. 

Among the key messages coming out of the discussions was the need for financing to address “urban inequalities”, including around access to housing. 

“Housing has become a commercial commodity, and urban land markets are captured by the political elite. Therefore, Member States are urged to position housing above all as a human right,” said Mr. Kelapile. 

He also encouraged countries to view the challenge of unlocking financing for affordable housing as both an opportunity to create jobs and a catalyst to enhance revenues raised by cities. 

Leave no one behind 

The imperative around housing is included in the Secretary-General’s quadrennial report, the document guiding deliberations at the one-day meeting, said Maimunah Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the agency that is the “custodian” of the New Urban Agenda. 

She recalled that the report recommends countries integrate provision of adequate and affordable housing as a driver of equitable development, adding that housing is central to social protection systems, along with healthcare, jobs, education and digital access. 

“Member States can achieve this by making urban policy a central feature to comprehensively address climate mitigation and adaptation. By aligning spatial and economic development we can protect biodiversity and reduce pollution. We must ensure no one, including the smallest of God’s creations, is left behind,” she said. 

Urban expansion is contributing to Indonesia's significant mangrove loss.

Ocean Image Bank/Srikanth Mannep
Urban expansion is contributing to Indonesia’s significant mangrove loss.

Under pressure 

The New Urban Agenda is critical at a time when cities are grappling with numerous pressures, for example on food, water and energy resources – a point made by the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed.  

The framework sets out a clear pathway for developing truly sustainable cities, centred around resilient economies, a clean environment, and the health, well-being, culture, and security that residents need.   It also offers lasting solutions to tackle the climate crisis.  

“When planned well, built in a compact urban form, and supported with high quality public transport, cities offer the most sustainable form of human settlement,” she said.   

“Investing in sustainable urbanization can also catalyze important transitions across food and energy systems.” 

Ms. Mohammed also highlighted UN initiatives to assist countries in implementing the New Urban Agenda.  

Urbanization will be integrated more systematically into development cooperation frameworks, for example, while Governments will also receive tailored support for the development of national urban policies and inclusive urban planning. 


Tech needs girls, and girls need tech

The International Girls in ICT Day is observed annually during the last week of April, and this year the focus is on ‘Access and Safety’ as key elements to engage the next generation with information and communication technology (ICT).

According to the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), this year’s theme “reflects the world’s shared interest in empowering youth and girls to safely benefit from an active digital life.

Fair and equal

The UN agency recognizes the need to ensure girls and women enjoy equal access to digital learning opportunities, particularly in least developed countries.

Worldwide only 30 per cent of tech science and technology professionals are women. And according to ITU’s latest data, globally, just 57 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 62 per cent of men.

Furthermore, if women are unable to access the Internet and do not feel safe online, they are unable to develop the necessary digital skills and engage in digital spaces, which diminishes their opportunities to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related fields, ITU continued.

Inspire the next generation

“Girls in ICT Day is a call to action to inspire the next generation of young women and girls to enter STEM careers,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

Calling on all government, business, university leaders and others, to do their utmost to support young women and girls, Mr. Zhao said that is essential to “give them the chance to achieve their dreams.”

Girls’ access to STEM is crucial

Joining the call, UN Women reiterated the importance of ensuring every girl has safe and meaningful access to digital technology and ICTs.

In a statement marking the Day, the agency said they were inspired by young activists such as 18-year-old Ana Vizitiv from the Republic of Moldova, whose work promotes gender equality in ICT and STEM, and by role model and entrepreneur 20-year-old Yordanos Genanaw from Ethiopia, who participated in the African Girls Can Code initiative and is now developing a website and coaching others.

“These young women are using their skills to inspire other girls to pursue coding and basic IT skills, regardless of gender biases”, the statement continued.

Reminding that girls’ access to, and engagement in STEM subjects, is more crucial now than ever – especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple crises in countries across the world have created repeated challenges to young women and girls to learn, earn and connect – UN Women reiterated the importance of technology as a solution to access essential services and information.

Adolescent girls use cellphones and tablets in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees (file).

© UNICEF/UN051302/Herwig
Adolescent girls use cellphones and tablets in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees (file).

Technology also helps them communicate in school, keep in touch with friends and relatives and as a key aspect of their autonomy and future prospects.

Persistent negative stereotypes

A recent study by UN Women and ITU shows that girls access digital technology at a later age than boys, and that their use of this technology is more often curtailed by their parents.

In addition, young women and girls are disproportionately exposed to online and ICT-facilitated violence and harassment, which can negatively impact their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and influence how they access and use digital tools for the rest of their lives, UN Women added.

Built upon the idea that “every girl has the right to be connected and safe, and to play her part in shaping a more equal, green and tech-driven future”, the UN Secretary-General has called for a global digital compact for improved digital cooperation.

The Generation Equality Action Coalition for Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality is bringing together governments, tech companies, the UN System, civil society organizations and young people, for a more equal and diverse digital transformation, including by preventing and eliminating online gender-based violence.

Marking the Day, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called for an end to systemic barriers: “Girls continue to face cyber bullying and threats, and a lack of access due to digital divide”, she said on Twitter, asking for a transformation in tech and innovation, to be “equitable, safe and accessible”.

Across the UN system, agencies spoke up for gender equality in STEM. The UN cultural agency UNESCO called for the empowerment of young girls in ICT, so they can have a future lead in the workplace. The UN refugee agency mentioned the importance of not forgetting the digital access for refugees, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reiterated the need to guarantee better access to digital technologies, for rural women and girls.

Join the digital revolution

The global celebration and associated worldwide Girls in ICT Day events underline ITU’s commitment to encourage girls and young women everywhere to consider pursuing STEM career paths.

To date, over 600,000 girls and young women have taken part in more than 12,000 celebrations of Girls in ICT Day in 195 countries worldwide.

“All over the world, girls and young women want to join the digital revolution. When we remove barriers of access and safety, women and girls can make remarkable contributions to, and be empowered by, ICTs. To put it simply: tech needs girls, and girls need tech,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.”

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