It’s a cliché to say that children are our future. But like most clichés, this one contains a truth: upon our children’s shoulders rests the fate of the Earth. Children who grow up malnourished, uneducated, abandoned, sold into prostitution or forced into child labour have few opportunities and even fewer resources – to make the world a better place.
She wakes before the sun at 5 a.m. She will have a few moments of the day to call her own. She is a child, yet also a woman, and a child bride, teenage mother, sole food producer, and illiterate homemaker. Here on the delta of the Ganges, at age 15, she has become all her parents meant her to be…
Voices, Autumn 1994, World Vision
Their struggle is simply to survive.
We can do better for children. Much better. But our track record, even at home, is dismal. In 1989, for example, the Parliament of Canada declared war on child poverty. Its objective? Eliminating child poverty by the year 2000.
Since that bold commitment was made, the rate of child poverty in Canada has actually increased from 14.5 per cent to 21 per cent. Today, 1.5 million Canadian children live in poverty.
Canada wasn’t the only country to declare war on child poverty. In 1989, 179 countries did just that when they ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. With those signatures they promised that the best interests of children would be a primary consideration in their laws and social welfare institutions.
They also made a commitment to reduce infant and child mortality, to make primary education compulsory and free to all, to set minimum age requirements for employment, to regulate hours and conditions of work, and to stop both the sale of children and child prostitution.
These promises were made on behalf of children everywhere. Fulfilling them would go a long way towards eliminating child poverty. Yet the situation continues to be bleak around the world.
- Approximately 160 million pre-school children are underweight.
- Diarrhea kills an estimated 2.2 million children each year.
- 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are employed.
- Approximately one million children, mostly Asian girls, have been forced into prostitution.
In Indonesia alone, 5 million children are domestic servants.
- An estimated 250,000 children under the age of 18 currently serve in government armed forces or armed opposition groups.
These are distressing statistics – especially when we’re capable of changing them.
Eliminating child poverty is feasible. The 1990 World Summit for Children set a number of realistic, affordable and attainable goals. Governments agreed they could be met by the year 2000.
- To reduce the death rates for children under the age of five by one third;
- To cut the rate of maternal mortality in half;
- To reduce malnutrition among children under the age of five by half;
- To provide basic education for all children, and to ensure 80 per cent of girls and boys complete their primary education;
- To reduce the rate of adult illiteracy by half;
- To protect children in especially difficult circumstances, and in times of war.
Meeting these targets depends on the kinds of choices governments make. Will they put money into fighting child poverty by supporting the provision of basic health care, education and social services for all families? Or will they continue to ignore the long-term benefits of investing in people?
Many analysts believe that investing in health, education and training, especially for girls, is one of the best long-term strategies to improve children’s health and development. Some governments and local NGOs are taking up this challenge.
In Nairobi, for example, an NGO called Sinaga runs an innovative child resource centre. It provides a six-month training course for child domestic servants. Funded by the International Labour Organization’s Programme to Eliminate Child Labour, the children receive half-day courses in basic literacy, cooking, tailoring and typing.
In Bangladesh, a local NGO called BRAC has developed an education program for primary school-aged children. Organized informally, the program is available to 2,500 villages and costs only $15 US per child per year. Its dropout rate is a mere 1.5 per cent.
The problem of child labour – like all poverty-related issues – is complex. But research compiled from organizations as diverse as UNICEF and the World Bank points to a relationship between poverty, child labour and women’s income.
In Egypt, for example, increasing women’s wages by 10 per cent would cut the number of working children aged twelve to fourteen by 15 per cent. There would be 27 per cent fewer children working between the ages of six and eleven. Raising minimum wages can obviously achieve a lot.
Apart from better wages, another way to reduce the pressure on families to send children out to work is to make it possible for women to get credit and job training.
Doing justice to children, however, by eliminating the conditions that doom them to poverty, is an attainable goal, and one with enormous impact for global poverty.
Children who live in poor rural communities are at greatest risk of being exploited and subjected to dangerous agricultural work. Improving rural incomes from farming through better roads, credit and agricultural practices – including access to education and health facilities – would expand the possibilities available to these children.
Yet of all the ways in which it’s possible to invest in children, early childhood education is by far the most cost-effective. Studies suggest it results in immediate, measurable gains in children’s educational and social development.
In Colombia, for example, a pre-school programme piloted by a local NGO was so successful that the government adapted it as a national programme. It now reaches more than one million pre-school children. The cost? A mere $90 US per child per year.
The plight of the world’s children is one of the greatest social challenges we face. Doing justice to children, however, by eliminating the conditions that doom them to poverty, is an attainable goal, and one with enormous impact for global poverty.
We can achieve the goals, as outlined by the World Summit in 1996. In doing so, we will assure the world of a more equitable – and sustainable – future.