The UN agency for children

In the aftermath of World War II, the plight of Europe’s children was grave, and a new agency created by the United Nations stepped in to provide food and clothing and health care to these children.

In 1953, UNICEF became a permanent part of the UN and began a successful global campaign against yaws, a disfiguring disease affecting millions of children, and one that can be cured with penicillin.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child

In 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which defines children’s rights to protection, education, health care, shelter, and good nutrition.


Following more than a decade of focus on child health issues, UNICEF expanded its interests to address the needs of the whole child. Thus began an abiding concern with education, starting with support for teacher training and classroom equipment in newly independent countries.

In 1965, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for the Promotion of brotherhood among nations.” Today, UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

UNICEF's work is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The Convention is the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in historyThe Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity. The unprecedented acceptance of the Convention clearly shows a wide global commitment to advancing children’s rights.

Much has been accomplished since the adoption of the Convention, from declining infant mortality to rising school enrolment, but much remains to be done.

State of the World's Children

Every child has the right to health, education and protection, and every society has a stake in expanding children’s opportunities in life. Yet, around the world, millions of children are denied a fair chance for no reason other than the country, gender or circumstances into which they are born.

Poverty affects children disproportionately. Around the world, one out of six children lives in extreme poverty, living on less than US$1.90 a day. Their families struggle to afford the basic health care and nutrition needed to provide them a strong start. These deprivations leave a lasting imprint; in 2019, 149 million children under the age of five were stunted.

Despite great progress in school enrolment in many parts of the world, more than 175 million children are not enrolled in pre-primary education, missing a critical investment opportunity and suffering deep inequalities from the start. 6 out of 10 leave primary school without achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, according to a 2017 UNESCO report. This challenge is compounded by the increasingly protracted nature of armed conflict.

Children and armed conflict

More than twenty years ago, the world united to condemn and mobilize against the use of children in armed conflict. Since then, thousands of children have been released as a result of Action Plans mandated by the UN Security Council and other actions aimed at ending and preventing recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups. However, serious challenges for the protection of children affected by armed conflict remain.

In 2019, 1.6 billion children (69%) were living in a conflict-affected country, and approximately 426 million children (over one in six) were living in a conflict zone. Millions of children, many of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their families are being displaced by armed conflict. These children are at a high risk of grave violations in and around camps, and other areas of refuge. Action is urgently required to alleviate the plight of children displaced by armed conflict and the Secretary-General encourages Member States to respect the rights of displaced and refugee children and to provide them with necessary support services. 

Violence against children

The right of children to protection from violence is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and yet still one billion children experience some form of emotional, physical or sexual violence every year; and one child dies from violence every seven minutes.

Violence against children knows no boundaries of culture, class or education. It takes place against children in institutions, in schools, and at home. Peer violence is also a concern, as is the growth in cyberbullying. Children exposed to violence live in isolation, loneliness and fear, not knowing where to turn for help, especially when the perpetrator is someone close. Children’s gender, disability, poverty, nationality or religious origin may all increase the risk of violence with the youngest being especially vulnerable as they are less able to speak up and seek support.

In 2006, the UN Study provided a set of recommendations on how to end violence against children; and the Secretary-General appointed a Special Representative to ensure their effective follow-up and to monitor implementation.

There has been some real progress: many states now have legislation to prohibit physical, mental and sexual violence and support victims; campaigns are raising awareness of the negative impact of violence; and bullying, sexual violence and harmful practices against children are being tackled. We also have more data on the scale and nature of violence against children.

These are significant developments but much more needs to be done. The inclusion of a specific target (16.2) in the 2030 Agenda has shown the world’s commitment to end to all forms of violence against children. We must work urgently to ensure that noble vision becomes a reality for every child.

Children and the Sustainable Development Goals

For 15 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a guiding force on many issues affecting the lives of children, young people and their families. Over this time, tremendous progress was made in reducing preventable child deaths, getting more children into schools, reducing extreme poverty and ensuring more people have access to safe water and nutritious food.

However, progress has been uneven and many of the most pressing issues for the world -- including addressing inequalities, promoting inclusive economic growth, protecting children from violence and combating climate change -- were not adequately covered in the MDGs.

With the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September of 2015, world leaders have committed to ending poverty by 2030. But unless accelerated efforts are made:

  • Almost 52 million children may die before reaching their fifth birthday between 2019 and 2030. 
  • Children in sub-Saharan Africa will be 16 times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children in high-income countries.
  • Nine out of 10 children living in extreme poverty will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • More than 60 million primary school-aged children will be out of school – roughly the same number as are out of school today. More than half will be from sub-Saharan Africa.
  • More than 150 million additional girls will marry before their 18th birthday by 2030.

These vast inequities and dangers do more than violate the rights and imperil the futures of individual children. They perpetuate intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality that undermine the stability of societies and even the security of nations everywhere. 

Children and the UN system

From the focus on education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to the efforts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to abolish child labor, to the Children and Youth Programme of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to the school feeding and health initiatives supported by the World Food Programme (WFP), to disease-eradication campaigns by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN system is there for children.