December 9, 1998

One day, many years ago, when Eleanor Roosevelt was scheduled to give a speech in New York, she was so sick that everyone urged her to cancel. But she refused. She drove from Hyde Park to 125th St. in Harlem, and when she got out of the car, a young child, her face beaming, handed the former First Lady a bouquet of flowers. Mrs. Roosevelt turned to the person with her and said, "You see, I had to come. She was expecting me."

Without fanfare, Eleanor Roosevelt went anywhere she thought her presence would make a difference, seeing for herself the everyday violations that rob individuals of their dignity and humanity. Then, she rolled up her sleeves and tried to do something about what she saw.

Part of Eleanor Roosevelt's legacy is to open our eyes and hearts and inspire us to fulfill the promises of what is perhaps her greatest achievement -- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration, which was adopted 50 years ago this week, reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." It does not exclude people of color. It does not exclude women. And it certainly does not exclude children.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child -- adopted in 1989 and ratified by every country except the United States and Somalia -- every child is born with the right to be protected from abuse and abduction as well as from violence and work that threatens his or her development. Every child has the right to worship freely and express opinions and aspirations. And every child has the right to health, education and life.

It is up to each of us to make good on these promises.

In some parts of Africa, neighbors greet each other not by saying, "Hello," but by asking, "How are the children?" The answer today -- 50 years after the Declaration of Human Rights and nearly 10 years after the U.N. Convention -- is that in some ways, they're doing better, but in other ways, too many are left behind.

Although the health of the world's children is improving, 7 million children still die of malnutrition every year. And although we know that education is the single best investment any country can make, 140 million primary-school age children are not in school.

Children are forced or sold into labor every day. In the developing world, 120 million children work full time, deprived of education and a better future for themselves and their families.

On my recent trip to Haiti, I learned that an estimated 230,000 children there are forced by their families' grinding poverty to work as domestic servants. And on a visit to Thailand, I met 12-year-old girls dying of AIDS -- children whose parents had sold them into prostitution.

Traditionally, wars have been fought between soldiers, but in the past 20 years, the nature of warfare has changed dramatically. Civilians -- including children -- are now the targets, the victims and even the instruments of war.

Girls are kidnapped into slave labor and raped; boys are used as child soldiers or human shields. In the developing world alone, 100 million children live on the streets -- out of school and without homes or families. Left to care for themselves, they roam their cities in tattered clothing, selling gum, begging and digging through the trash for food.

We cannot condemn homelessness or violence against children in other countries, though, and ignore the plight of children here at home. This is why it is so important to continue to fight for the best education and health care for our children and to protect them from abuse and neglect.

I've been pleased that my husband's administration has put the protection of children around the world on the front burner by fighting against abusive workplace conditions, increasing awareness of children's health issues, and working to combat the trafficking of human beings. But so much remains to be done.

We may not have the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt, but each of us can contribute to a child's life. We can make sure we are part of a society that values health care, universal education and strong families. We can continue to promote democracy around the world, giving parents a voice at the ballot box and an opportunity to raise their children free from violence, abuse and war. And I hope we can ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Eleanor Roosevelt knew that even on a day when she was sick, a child needed and expected her. In this Advent season, as Christians celebrate the birth of another child who brought a message of peace to a troubled world, it is especially fitting to remember every child today who needs and expects us to fulfill the promises we made 50 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.