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29 Feb, 2012

As Global Cities Grow, Living Conditions for Children Worsen, UNICEF Report Reveals

UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles

27 February 2012 – With the world undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, UNICEF’s annual flagship publication The State of the World’s Children 2012 (SOWC) 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. Download the full report here.

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. “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,” said Mr. Aslam.

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. 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 Mr. 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.

Children put their sprawling slum on the map – literally. The data they have gathered about Rishi Aurobindo Colony, Kolkata, India, will be uploaded to Google Earth. “One of the things that struck us all is the paucity of child-specific urban data,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Aslam said.

Excerpts from the report:

  • By 2050, 70 per cent of all people will live in urban areas. Already, 1 in 3 urban dwellers lives in slum conditions; in Africa, the proportion is a staggering 6 in 10. The impact on children living in such conditions is significant. From Ghana and Kenya to Bangladesh and India, children living in slums are among the least likely to attend school. And disparities in nutrition separating rich and poor children within the cities and towns of sub-Saharan Africa are often greater than those between urban and rural children.
  • We must do more to reach all children in need, wherever they live, wherever they are excluded and left behind. Some might ask whether we can afford to do this, especially at a time of austerity in national budgets and reduced aid allocations. But if we overcome the barriers that have kept these children from the services that they need and that are theirs by right, then millions more will grow up healthy, attend school and live more productive lives. Can we afford not to do this?
  • All children’s rights are not realized equally. Over one third of children in urban areas worldwide go unregistered at birth – and about half the children in the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are unregistered. This is a violation of Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The invisibility that derives from the lack of a birth certificate or an official identity vastly increases children’s vulnerability to exploitation of all kinds, from recruitment by armed groups to being forced into child marriage or hazardous work. Without a birth certificate, a child in conflict with the law may also be treated and punished as an adult by the judicial system.1 Even those who avoid these perils may be unable to access vital services and opportunities – including education.
  • For Palestinian children, city life can be a grim life. Too often, it represents guns and checkpoints, fear and insecurity. Yet their greatest hope is their national pride: a deep-seated belief in education, which they know is essential for building a life and rebuilding their country. Yet, since 1999, across Occupied Palestinian Territory, the number of primary-school- aged children who are out of school has leapt from 4,000 to 110,000, a staggering 2,650 per cent increase. In Gaza, among the world’s most densely populated areas, access to and quality of education have deteriorated rapidly. For the sake of these children’s futures and of the all-important search for regional peace, we must set aside our anger and angst and give them the childhoods they deserve, childhoods we expect for our own children, filled with happy memories and equal opportunities.
  • There are an estimated 2.5 million people worldwide who have been trafficked into forced labour. Some 22 to 50 per cent of trafficking victims are children. The precise magnitude of the problem is difficult to ascertain because definitions vary and trafficking is a clandestine business. We do know that children are usually trafficked from rural to urban areas and that the forms of exploitation to which they are subjected – domestic servitude, sexual exploitation linked to tourism, and drug running, to name a few – are most common in highly populated places and on the streets. For the most part, trafficking is denied or ignored – even if, by some estimates, it is a global industry with US$32 billion in annual profits from forced labour. Trafficked children toil behind the walls of private homes, hotel rooms and sweatshops – obscure places from which most never come forward for fear of prosecution or, for those who were taken across borders, deportation.
  • Even in the absence of trafficking, many children are forced to work in order to survive. Around the world, an estimated 215 million boys and girls aged 5–17 were engaged in child labour in 2008, 115 million of them in hazardous work. Children may work as ragpickers or shoeshiners, serve at tea stalls, sell cigarettes on the street, or work in homes or factories. Many of those engaged in child labour experience its worst forms – including forced and bonded work, illicit activities, armed combat and domestic labour. Because they are largely invisible, these forms of child labour are the most difficult to tackle.