United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF): History & Purpose

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  • 0:02 UNICEF's History
  • 1:46 Structure
  • 2:44 Purpose
  • 3:55 Human Rights-Based Approach
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

It may be cliche, but children really are our future, and the majority of the world's children are threatened by poverty, malnutrition, disease, discrimination, and violence. In this lesson, you'll learn about UNICEF and its efforts to fix this problem.

UNICEF's History

Imagine living in a post-war landscape where food and clean water are hard to come by and a simple cut can lead to a deadly infection. Imagine being surrounded by violence and having little to no recognized rights. Now image that you are a child in this environment. UNICEF was created to help and advocate for children in these situations. Let's take a quick look at its history.

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was created by the United Nations in 1946 to provide food, clothing, and healthcare to the children of post-World War II Europe. In 1953, UNICEF became a permanent part of the United Nations. While its name was shortened to United Nations Children Fund at that time, it is still is referred to as UNICEF.

UNICEF expanded the scope of its activities in the 1960s to include advocating for and advancing children's rights to education, healthcare, and nutrition. UNICEF won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. UNICEF eventually expanded its scope to the struggle of women, especially mothers, in the developing world. For example, it launched its 'Women in Development Programme' in 1980. In 1982, UNICEF commenced a new children's health program that focused on monitoring growth, oral rehydration therapy, advocating breastfeeding, and immunization. In 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which UNICEF uses as guidance for its programs.


UNICEF is governed by an Executive Board consisting of 36 members that are elected to terms of three years by the United Nations' Economic and Social Council. Each region that UNICEF serves is allocated a number of seats on the Executive Board, so all regions are represented. UNICEF is headquartered in New York City in the United States. There are also 36 national committees across the globe, which are nongovernmental organizations that help promote the rights of children and fundraise.

While UNICEF is headquartered in the United States, it is active in at least 190 countries around the world. Its activities are divided by region and include Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, East Asia and the Pacific, Eastern and Southern Africa, Latin America and Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, West and Central Africa. A regional office is located within each region.


According to its mission statement, 'UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children's rights, to help meet their basic needs, and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.' We can break UNICEF activities into four broad areas. Let's take a look.

  • Protection of children from violence, exploitation and abusive situations. Issues of concern including child labor, child marriage, child recruitment into military, child trafficking, female genital mutilation, landmines, and sexual violence
  • End preventable deaths and developmental problems of children through healthcare, nutrition, water, and sanitation programs
  • Support basic education and gender equality, including early childhood education, enhancing the primary and secondary education quality, and ensuring equitable access to education for both boys and girls
  • Provide humanitarian aid during crisis and emergencies with a focus on saving the lives and protecting the rights of children suffering through both natural disasters, such as tsunamis, and man-made disasters, such as war

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