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The plight of children in an urban world

16 March 2012: UNICEF has recently released a report on state of children in an urban world.

Over half the world’s people – including more than a billion children now live in cities and towns. While cities have long been associated with employment, development and economic growth, hundreds of millions of children in the world’s urban areas are growing up amid scarcity and deprivation.

Every year, the world’s urban population increases by about 60 million. It is estimated that by 2050, 7 in 10 people will live in cities and towns. Most urban growth is taking place in Asia and Africa. Migration from the countryside has long driven urban expansion and remains a major factor in some regions. Many children enjoy the advantages that urban life offers, including access to educational, medical and recreational facilities. Too many, however, are denied such essentials as clean water, electricity and health care – even though they may live close to these services. Too many are forced into dangerous and exploitative work instead of being able to attend school. And too many face a constant threat of eviction, although they already live under the most challenging conditions – in ramshackle dwellings and overcrowded settlements that are highly vulnerable to disease and disaster.

The urban experience is all too often one of poverty and exclusion. About one third of the world’s urban population lives in slum conditions, and in Africa that proportion is greater than 60 per cent. Some 1.4 billion people will live in informal settlements and slums by 2020. The difficulties the poor face are exacerbated by such factors as illegality, limited voice in decision-making and lack of secure tenure and legal protection. Exclusion due to poverty is often reinforced by discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, race or disability.

Children living in urban settings have the full range of civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights recognized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international instruments. These rights include survival; development to the fullest; protection from abuse, exploitation and discrimination; and participation in family, cultural and social life.

Those children whose needs are greatest also face the greatest violations of their rights. The hardships children endure in urban areas may include hunger and ill health; substandard housing; poor access to water and sanitation; and insufficient education and protection.

Article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child commits States parties to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” Article 24 invokes every child’s right to “the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.” While urban areas are home to the majority of modern health facilities, too many children who live in the vicinity are nonetheless deprived of even rudimentary services.

Nearly 8 million children died in 2010 before reaching the age of 5 – most from pneumonia, diarrhoea or birth complications. In urban areas, high concentrations of poverty combine with inadequate services to drive up child mortality. As far as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) cases are concerned about 1,000 babies a day were infected through mother-to-child transmission in 2010. A further 2,600 people aged 15–24 were infected per day that year, mainly as a result of unprotected sex or unsafe injection practices. HIV prevalence remains generally higher in urban areas.

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, “the highest attainable standard of health” extends to providing clean drinking water and eliminating the dangers of environmental pollution. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic conditions claim many lives each year, including an estimated 1.2 million children under the age of 5 who die from diarrhoea. Congested and unsanitary conditions make urban slums particularly high-risk areas for communicable diseases. Without sufficient access to safe drinking water or an adequate water supply for basic hygiene, children’s health suffers. Improving access and service quality will be vital to reducing child mortality and morbidity.

In Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States parties recognize children’s right to education and commit to “achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity.” But urban inequalities undermine children’s right to education. In urban areas blighted by poverty, ill health and poor nutrition, early childhood programming is often notable by its absence. This is lamentable because the first few years have a profound and enduring effect on the rest of a person’s life. By one estimate, in developing countries, more than 200 million children under 5 years of age fail to reach their full cognitive potential.

As of 2008, 67 million primary-school-aged children were still out of school, 53 per cent of them being girls. Again, urban areas show pronounced disparities in the amount of schooling children receive. In countries as diverse as Benin, Pakistan and Tajikistan, the gap in total years of schooling between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population has been found to be greater in urban than in rural areas.

At any given time, nearly 2.5 million people are in forced labour as a result of trafficking – an estimated 22 to 50 per cent of them children. Even in the absence of trafficking, many children are forced to work to survive. About 215 million girls and boys aged 5–17 were engaged in child labour in 2008, 115 million of them in hazardous work.

Estimates also suggest that tens of millions of children live or work on the streets of the world’s towns and cities – and the number is rising with global population growth, migration and increasing urbanization. Living on the street exposes children to violence, yet crimes against them are rarely investigated, and few people are prepared to act in their defence. In fact, many countries and cities have outlawed vagrancy and running away from home, and children living or working on the street often become the principal victims of such criminalization. Researchers, national bodies and international human rights groups have reported that police and security forces have abused children on the streets of cities all over the world.

Like adults, children migrate for many reasons. Some move to secure better livelihoods or educational opportunities, or simply to escape poverty. Others move to escape conflict or disasters and the upheaval and food shortages that accompany them. Family circumstances, such as the loss of a parent or an unstable or difficult situation at home, often play a role. Be it forced or voluntary, migration entails risks that require age appropriate measures to protect the children involved. Children who migrate unaccompanied by adults are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Similar predations may await children who are, or who move with, refugees or internally displaced persons. More than half the world’s registered refugees live in urban settings. All too often, young people who arrive in urban areas with hopes of educational advancement find it unattainable because they need to work, and their jobs are too demanding to permit them to attend school.

Crime and violence affect hundreds of millions of children in urban areas. Some are targets and others, participants or witnesses. Early exposure to a violent environment can undermine children’s faith in adults and the social order and can also impede children’s development. Those growing up amid violence display poor academic performance and higher school dropout rates, as well as anxiety, depression, aggression and problems with self-control.

In many parts of the world, urban gangs made up entirely or partly of young people are known for committing crimes ranging from extortion to armed robbery and murder. On average, children join gangs around age 13, but evidence suggests that the age of gang initiation is falling. In marginalized urban settings, such groups lure young people with the prospects of financial reward and a sense of belonging.

For millions of children, urban poverty is complicated and intensified by exposure to such hazards as cyclones, floods, mudslides and earthquakes. Since the middle of the twentieth century, recorded disasters have increased tenfold, the majority stemming from weather-related events. Vulnerable locations and great concentrations of people can make cities especially dangerous. Children are among the most susceptible to injury and death.

“Nearly half of all children already live in urban settings. As their number increases, the following urgent action is required to promote their development and secure their rights”.

Improve understanding of the scale and nature of urban poverty and exclusion affecting children.
Use the improved understanding of exclusion to identify and remove the barriers to inclusion that prevent marginalized children and their families from using services and enjoying such core elements of citizenship as legal protection and security of housing tenure.
Maintain a sharp focus on the particular needs and priorities of children in urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and disparity. Age, ability and gender must be taken into account.
Promote partnership between the urban poor and government at all its levels. Urban initiatives that foster such participation – and particularly those that involve children and young people – report better results not only for children but also for their communities.
Work together to achieve sustainable improvements in children’s rights. Especially in these strained times, actors at all levels – from the local to the global, and from civil society to the public and private sectors – need to pool their resources and energies to create urban environments conducive to children’s rights.
Equity must be the guiding principle in all efforts to secure the rights of children in urban areas. The children of slums – born into and raised under some of the most challenging conditions of poverty and disadvantage – will require particular attention. But this must not come at the expense of children elsewhere. The larger goal must remain in focus: fairer, more nurturing cities and societies for all people – starting with children.

Commenting on UNICEF’s report, Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, Chairperson, Global March Against Child Labour said that in my own work, I am encountered with dozens of migrated parents whose children go missing, right from the capital of world’s largest democracy - India. These parents migrate to cities and towns for a meagre livelihood with big dreams in their eyes, but lose their most precious daughters and sons.

Mr. Satyarthi expressed serious concern about the children of migrant parents who inadvertently get exposed to perils of the urban world like abduction for forced labour, forced beggary, kidnapping by illegal adoption rackets and illegal organ transplantation. He said that these children along with their parents not being domiciles of the cities to which they migrate for working more often than not face social exclusion and injustice. He further said that proper steps should be taken by Law Enforcement agencies to keep a thorough identification record of children of such migrant parents. Since capitalist development thrives on cheap labour, many a times migrant parents in order to further augment their household income (succumbing to high cost of living in the cities) dissuade their children from attending school and opt for work instead, which hinders the overall development of such children.

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The report could be downloaded by clicking on the following URL: http://www.unicef.org/sowc/files/SOWC_2012-Main_Report_EN_21Dec2011.pdf