Candlelight vigils call attention to children's plight

By EDGAR MILLER United Press International

From New Zealand westward around the globe to Hawaii, from frozen Antarctica to the tropical heat of the Caribbean, thousands of candles flickered in the twilight, sending a message to the world's leaders from a forgotten constituency: children.

The candlelight vigils Sunday night were organized to focus world attention on the plight of children in advance of this weekend's World Summit for Children that will bring together dozens of presidents, kings and prime ministers at the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss the problem.


'Never before have so many heads of state gathered, on any issue, much less the needs and well-being of children,' said Sam Harris, global vigil coordinator in Washington, D.C.. Harris heads a group called RESULTS, which he describes as a grass roots citizens' lobby aimed at creating the political will to end hunger.

'Never before has there been such a mobilization for the long-term needs of children,' Harris said. 'There was a mobilization for famine in Ethiopia but not for the long-term needs of children. I think the vigils began to let the public know the problem, some of the solution, and will help to assure that this World Summit for Children will not be a secret summit.'


The vigils, asking governments to provide children with health care, education and an environment free of poverty, began in New Zealand and followed the setting sun westward through more than 80 nations to end in Hawaii. Attendance ranged from a few dozen to thousands at more than 2, 600 locations around the globe.

In Britain, an estimated 15,000 people participated in 50 vigils.

Hundreds of children and adults gathered at St. Paul's Cathedral in London Sunday night to urge world leaders to make bold social, political and economic commitments on behalf of children's health, education and welfare.

Forty children holding candles and dressed in colorful ethnic costumes symbolized the tragedy they hoped to end -- the deaths of 40,000 children each day, more than half of them from sicknesses like measles and diarrhea that could easily be treated.

Robert Lloyd, who narrated the program, said the preventable deaths could be spared by an expenditure of $2.8 billion worldwide per year. 'That sounds a lot but it is the same that American companies spend on the advertising cigarettes in a year, it is the same that Russians spend on vodka in a month, and it is the same as the world spends on the military every day.'


Tara McDonald, a 14-year-old ambassador for UNICEF, stated the U.K. branch goals for the conference: 'Saving the lives of 50 million children worldwide this this decade, and ensuring their future health, education and opportunity to live a life free of poverty within a sustainable environment.'

In the United States, more than 100,000 people gathered at hundreds of vigil sites from Boston's City Hall Plaza to Kilana Park in Maui, Hawaii.

In St. Paul, where 1,500 children and adults attended the vigil, Luanne Nyberg, director of the Children's Defense Fund, said it is time for lawmakers to recognize children's needs.

'We're here to show President Bush and all the politicians in Minnesota who want our vote Nov. 6 that we want children to be their front-and-center agenda, their first priority,' Nyberg said.

The vigil in Kansas City was organized by a high school student, Luci Hooper, a member of Youth Ending Hunger, an international group.

Economist Sheldon Stahl told the crowd in Kansas City that while fatal plane crashes attract headlines, one child dying of neglect or hunger every two seconds does not make headlines.

Organizers in Washington said that at Kharkov in the Soviet Union more than 30,000 people gathered for the vigil.


In the Philippines, where some 1.3 million children are caught in the vise of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and insurgencies by communist guerrillas and Moslem separatists, President Corazon Aquino lighted the first candle in a vigil that drew 6,000 people at a Manila stadium.

Aquino said the ceremony 'firms up our commitment to put Filipino children in the forefront of our development agenda and to secure their claim on the country's resources, whether in peace or in times of conflict.'

In Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke threw away a prepared text as he urged a crowd of 3,000 people in Sydney to continue to pressure governments to spend less on weapons and more on eliminating child poverty.

Children in Australia linked 40,000 paper dolls together from the top of a mountain to its base.

In Denmark, Prime Minister Poul Schluter used the occasion to announce that Denmark had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Vigil coordinator Harris said Monday he felt the vigils had succeeded in sending a clear message from the public to the heads of state, particularly those who will gather in New York next weekend.

'I feel the message is beginning to be heard,' he said. 'Like everything around governmental decision, the squeaky wheel does get the grease. the purpose of the vigils was to add squeak.'


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