Many children around the world lack access to schools, health care and sanitation and are at high risk of exploitation and trafficking

Afghan girl begging in Kabul

One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation. These children are at “high risk of exploitation and trafficking, as well as becoming victims of violence.”  The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, says the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) in its flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, which was launched on 28 February in Mexico City.

The report stresses that despite growing up in close proximity to modern facilities and basic services, “many children in urban areas lack access to electricity, clean water and education. They are also at high risk of contracting diseases due to unsanitary conditions and suffering from malnutrition.”

According to UNICEF, one in three city dwellers lives in slums, while in Africa the proportion increases to six in ten. These children are at “high risk of exploitation and trafficking, as well as becoming victims of violence.”

“[Children’s] situations and needs are often represented by aggregate figures that show urban children to be better off than their rural counterparts, obscuring the disparities that exist among the children of cities,” says Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, in the report’s foreword.

Children’s Killers

“Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions facilitate transmission of disease – notably pneumonia and diarrhea, the two leading killers of children under the age of five worldwide,” says the report.

“Outbreaks of measles, tuberculosis and other vaccine-preventable diseases are also more frequent in these areas, where population density is high and immunization levels are low.”

While global vaccine coverage is improving, the report warns that it remains low in slums and informal settlements, increasing the population’s vulnerability.

The report also states that children who live in slums “face hunger and malnutrition. Poor nutrition is responsible for more than a third of deaths globally for children under the age of five.”

“Even the apparently well fed – those who receive sufficient calories to fuel their daily activities – can suffer the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient malnutrition,” the report warns. In addition to poor health, the report points out that children living in slums are the least likely to attend school.

Forced to Work in the Streets

“Especially in slums, where public education options are scarce, families face a choice between paying for their children to attend overcrowded private schools of poor quality or withdrawing their children from school altogether.

“Even when schooling is free, ancillary expenses – uniforms, classroom supplies or exam fees, for example – are often high enough to prevent children from attending school.”

Without education, many children go on to work in the streets, with many joining criminal gangs which offer the promise of financial rewards and a sense of belonging, the report states.

It provides a set of recommendations to improve the conditions of children living in cities, which include improving the understanding of the scale and nature of poverty that affects children in cities, and using the knowledge to remove barriers to their social inclusion.

The report also underscores the importance of making children’s needs a priority in city planning and infrastructure development, and of establishing partnerships between the poor and government authorities at all levels.

Half the World’s Children Now Live in Urban Areas

“We must do more to reach all children in need, wherever they live, wherever they are excluded and left behind,” said Lake. “If we overcome the barriers that have kept these children from the services they need and that are theirs by right, then millions more will grow up healthy, attend school, and live more productive lives.”

‘The State of the World’s Children 2012′ (SOWC) report says that almost half the world’s children now live in urban areas, and it’s calling for greater emphasis on identifying and meeting their needs.

“We’re approaching some sort of tipping point. Already more than half the world’s people live in cities and towns and so do more than a billion children. The day is rapidly approaching when the majority of the world’s children will be growing up in urban environments,” said SOWC editor Abid Aslam.

Harsh Environments

“Traditionally, families and children moved to cities in search of better opportunities, but most urban growth now seems to be the result of children being born to parents who already live in a city. And services aren’t keeping up with this growth.”

Aslam added that increasingly people are being born into existing urban environments, and what is alarming to us is that, for far too many children, those environments are extremely harsh.

“Children growing up in slums such as Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, and the favelas of Brazil are “forced to endure violence, exploitation and lack of basics such as clean water and education.”

Lack of Data

They are likely not to have been registered at birth and their families may lack a formal rental agreement or other such protection from arbitrary eviction. This makes their lives extremely precarious.

“They don’t know often from one week to the next, or one month to the next, or one year to the next where they’re going to live, much less whether they’re going to be able to go to school, or whether they’re going to have clean, piped water,” said Aslam.

The report turns on its head the notion that all children who live in cities are necessarily better off than those in rural communities. It shows that, although disadvantaged children may live minutes away from schools and clinics, for example, they are cut off from them by poverty and discrimination.

It also calls attention to the lack of data on conditions in slums, particularly as it relates to children, and it calls for a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding poverty and inequality in cities and increased political will to improve the lives of the most marginalized.

“It Serves Certain Interests to Keep These Children Invisible”

“One of the things that struck us all is the paucity of child-specific urban data,” Aslam said. “There are many technical reasons, but at the end of the day it’s a political decision and it serves certain interests to keep the problem under wraps, to keep these children invisible, and that’s something that needs to change.”

‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ notes that the very children and families who are “excluded from the opportunities of urban life can come up with improvements that benefit everyone.”

Examples in cities from Latin America across the globe to Asia show the benefits of greater representation and participation in municipal affairs. Where the excluded have been included in urban planning and decision-making, advancements have followed – in literacy, infrastructure and safety, for example.

“The report contains evidence that when you include the poor and marginalized and the voiceless in decision-making processes, which is their right, then everyone benefits,” Aslam said.

*Photo: Afghan girl begging in Kabul. Credit:Evstafiev | Wikimedia Commons

Human Wrongs Watch


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