In a lead up to World Children’s Day, UNICEF Representative Andrea James talks to Jigme Wangdi about opportunities to continue improving the lives of children and young people in Bhutan. Excerpts.

You have been in Bhutan for almost six months now. What are your initial observations on the situation of children and young people in Bhutan?

I am happy to be in Bhutan and I want to thank the Royal Government of Bhutan, partners and my colleagues at UNICEF for the warm welcome. Bhutan has made commendable progress in improving the lives of children and young people. More children are surviving, more than 90 percent of children are learning and there is a growing awareness of childcare and protection needs. We need to ensure that these gains are sustained which means we need to address the issue of the quality of services we provide to nurture children and young people.

What are some of the achievements made towards improving the lives of children and young people in Bhutan?

At UNICEF, we believe in and work with partners to give every child the best start in life. Bhutan’s high routine immunisation coverage even during the Covid-19 pandemic helped protect children. The robust cold chain system that UNICEF and partners strengthened helps maintain the efficacy of life-saving vaccines. During the pandemic, many countries looked to Bhutan as an example of leadership in managing the pandemic.

In just over a decade since the introduction of community-based ECCD centres, the enrolment of preschool-age children has increased to 38.6 percent today. Our work with the monastic body is supporting child monks and nuns to learn English, have access to safe sanitation facilities and keep children safe from harm.

Access to primary and secondary schools has seen remarkable improvement and Bhutan is close to achieving universal primary education. There is also a growing awareness now of childcare and protection needs for children and we are working with partners to strengthen the child protection system.

What are the existing and emerging challenges confronting children that would impact progress going forward?

We are seeing an increase in substance abuse, there are environmental and mental health concerns which are affecting adolescents and adults alike.

We are aware that malnutrition remains a public health concern. Bhutan is now facing a triple burden which means stunting, overweight and obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies.

Violence against children and neonatal mortality is still high and there are children with disabilities that are not accessing Early Childhood Care and Development centres as they are currently not fully inclusive.

Another area to highlight is skilling young people. When you look at the new development trajectory in Bhutan and the big focus being on the economy and digitalisation, we see that the skilling of young people has become more critical than ever because when children complete their education, they are not adequately prepared for work, so that’s a big area that we’re focusing on moving forward.

UNICEF marks World Children’s Day on Nov 20. What is your key message to leaders?

The first is early investment in children. We know that leads to high returns but the returns are highest when the investment focuses on the implementation of a multi-sectoral approach. To make sure we have that human capital, we need early investment in children.

Second –  there’s a lot of focus on what children should be learning in school. However, equally critical is the need to also focus on the conditions in which children are learning and how shock-responsive these conditions are to ensure the best interest of all children including those with disabilities and those from the most vulnerable backgrounds.

Third – I always speak with children, adolescents, teachers and parents during my visits to the dzongkhags and the recurring subject is about parenting. We must do more to help parents become better parents so that they can be more engaged and responsive to their children’s needs.

Mental health is a national priority in the country. How are we doing in supporting the mental health of children?

The mental health issue in Bhutan is a growing concern. We have more than a 60 percent increase in mental health and behavioural disorders recorded between 2017 and 2021.

With prevention and response services limited and fragmented, the government has indicated a commitment to deliver timely, reliable and effective interventions through a multi-sectoral and coordinated approach and we cannot underscore the importance of that coordinated multi-sectoral approach and prevention.

Efforts are also underway to strengthen the capacity of service providers and raise awareness to address the stigma around mental health.

Young people in Bhutan are grappling with complex challenges today and several initiatives are underway. How is UNICEF’s support helping?

One of our recent supports to skill young people is the rollout of an initiative called UPSHIFT and we’re doing this nationwide with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development and with civil society partners.

We’re engaging young people in decision-making and empowering them with skills to negotiate and learn and grow. It’s interesting because when you see children and young people, they are the future and so part of UPSHIFT is helping adolescents come up with those critical skills instead of pointing out that there’s a problem and asking someone else to come up with a solution. We’re giving them the tools and framework to identify the problems, the stakeholders involved and what role they can have in it.

It’s helping young people be much more solution-oriented and develop those skills to be agents of change at the community level but also boost their confidence and their skills for when they move beyond primary and secondary school and onto future areas in their lives.

What are UNICEF’s priorities in the 13th Plan and what are some of the new areas of focus?

One of the new priorities of UNICEF in the 13th Plan is to support the government to develop and implement a comprehensive, shock-responsive social protection system using a life cycle approach through the existing technical networks and capacities, particularly at our regional and global level.

There’s a lot of experience and models out there that we can learn and use to start implementing them. Also, investing in social protections such as cash transfers for mothers and children during the first 1,000 golden days will contribute to the cognitive skills of children as 80 percent of brain development occurs in that period.

Another priority is the focus on the economy. For the economy to grow, you need to have healthy human capital and reduce the burdens non-communicable diseases on the health system.

UNICEF turns 50 years in Bhutan next year. Going forward, what role do you see for UNICEF in Bhutan?

As Bhutan prepares to graduate from the least developed category, it’s going to be a transition because you can’t just graduate overnight.

It’s during that transition that we need to make sure that we’re focusing on the social service sectors and the needs of children and their families. UNICEF’s role as a technical agency that supports the well-being and development of children and adolescents will continue to grow and we will be responsive to the changing contextual needs in the country.

We have achieved a lot in the last 50 years and we will continue to be a solid partner with Bhutan as they move forward. This means reaching those children who are left behind and are the most vulnerable in remote locations and children who are still in poverty.

We will ensure the delivery and quality of accessible and inclusive services in health, nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene, education, child protection and social protection to children and their families, particularly focusing on the most vulnerable.