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Incoming Director of UNICEF a Threat to Young People’s Health

Ann Veneman, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has been appointed the next executive director of the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.1 Advocates worry that this appointment will jeopardize the sexual and reproductive health of young people worldwide.

Under Carol Bellamy, the current executive director, UNICEF has paid a great deal of attention to the sexual and reproductive health of young people, using a human rights-based approach. In fact, UNICEF’s annual report, The State of the World’s Children 2005: Childhood Under Threat examines sexual health issues, including HIV/AIDS. The report states that adolescents "need comprehensive sexual health education and services to reduce the risk of infection, as well as relationships with caring adults through schools and faith-based or community organizations."2 The U.N. agency also works to prevent infant mortality and maternal death by supporting governments in their efforts to provide family planning as well as quality health care for women of child-bearing age.

Bellamy’s efforts to advance comprehensive sexual health promotion programs and ensure access to a full range of reproductive health services, has drawn fire from far-right organizations. For example, in a recent newsletter, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) accused Bellamy of working to "encourage sexual promiscuity, promote the rights of women and girls from a feminist perspective, and even support abortion." 3 Not surprisingly, Bellamy’s unequivocal support of sexual and reproductive health for adolescents has often put her at odds with President Bush, and the Administration has "waited eagerly" for Bellamy’s tenure to expire.4

Many in the Administration, including President Bush, favored Veneman as a replacement for Bellamy. Appointed to the top post at the Department of Agriculture by Bush during his first term, Veneman has been known for her loyalty to the Administration as well as her ties to agribusiness and defense of genetically modified foods. Annan has called her credentials "outstanding," but, given strained U.S. relations at the U.N. and the Bush Administration’s on-going efforts to discredit Annan personally, this nomination is being characterized as a political overture rather than a choice made in the best interest of this critical UN agency.5 Veneman has already stated that she intends to "serve as a bridge" to the Bush administration.

In articulating her vision of her upcoming role, Veneman said, "the plight of children around the world is enormous. Children today must face issues that no child-no human being-should have to confront: malnutrition and hunger, illiteracy and disease, especially the scourge of HIV/AIDS, exploitation and suffering, wars and natural disasters." Although Veneman did point to HIV/AIDS as one of the primary threats to children worldwide, public health advocates fear that she will conform to the Bush Administration’s promotion of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for HIV-prevention.

When asked at a press conference to clarify her views on UNICEF’s ongoing support of comprehensive prevention programs and other reproductive health initiatives, Veneman said, "I don’t come with any agenda with regard to those or any other social issues." When pressed, however, she added, "I come with an agenda of helping children, particularly in the areas of education and health and to address the issues of hunger and malnutrition. I don’t believe that these issues are relevant to the mission of UNICEF."6

"It is outrageous that that the person entrusted with promoting the well-being of the world’s young people does not consider their sexual and reproductive health relevant to her work," said Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS.

"It is a common misconception that UNICEF exclusively serves young children," Smith continued, "but we have to remember that the agency also serves adolescents and young adults around the world who are in dire need of information and skills to keep themselves safe. In order to prevent HIV transmission and promote total health, we need to provide young people with age-appropriate, medically accurate information. Anything less smacks of ideological posturing of the worst sort."


  1. United Nations Children’s Fund, "UNICEF Welcomes Appointment of Next Executive Director," Press Release published on 19 January 2005, accessed 22 February 2005,
  2. "The State of the World’s Children 2005, Childhood Under Threat," (New York: UNICEF, 2005), 74.
  3. Ibid.
  4. "Agriculture Secretary Veneman Named UNICEF Director," HIV/AIDS Newsroom, International News, 19 January 2005, accessed 21 February 2005,
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Transcript of Press Conference by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at United Nations Headquarters," United Nations News Information Service, 18 January 2005, accessed 14 March 2005,