04 March 2012

UNICEF's Report: "The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an Urban World" - an Overview

Picture from UNICEF's facebook page.

UNICEF launched its flagship report, The State of the World's Children: Children in an Urban World, in Mexico City on 28 February 2012. The focus on the Report was on urban areas because half of the world's population, including more than a billion children, now live in cities and towns. Reading it made me think of some of my own observations of a city of great contrasts: Cape Town. I will write a separate post about the children's projects I have worked with there. Here is a brief look at what the Report says:

The Growing Urban Population

In 2050, seven out of ten people will live in urban areas. The percentage of children living in urban areas has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, as you can see from these pie charts:

Pie Charts taken from page 2 of the Executive Summary of the Report.

Migration from the countryside was (and in some regions still is) the driving factor for urban growth but it is now estimated that children being born in cities and towns accounts for around 60% of urban growth. Most of this growth is occurring in low- and middle-income countries. One in three city dwellers are living in slum conditions. 

Ignoring the Urban Poor?

Comparisons are normally drawn between indicators of children's wellbeing in rural and urban areas (such as the proportion of children reaching their fifth birthday, or going to school, or gaining access to improved sanitation, etc). This hides the problems faced by the urban poor, as the statistics for urban children take into account the wealth of communities elsewhere in the same city. The truth is that there are wide disparities within urban areas, with marginalised children being excluded from essential services and social protection. 

City of Mianyang, Sichuan Province, China.
Picture from UNICEF's facebook page

The Rights of Children in Urban Settings

Of course children living in urban poverty have the same rights as children everywhere, but there are certain challenges which make it more difficult for their rights to be realised. Chapter two of the Report says that inadequate living conditions are among the most pervasive violations of children's rights. Evidence suggests that more children want for shelter and sanitation than are deprived of food.  

Research from different countries has shown that living in a disadvantaged urban area increases the mortality rate of children under five. The Report states:

"Poor water supply and sanitation, the use of hazardous cooking fuels in badly ventilated spaces, overcrowding and the need to pay for health services – which effectively puts them out of reach for the poor – are among the major underlying causes of these under-five deaths.

The following issues were highlighted as violating children's rights, for example their rights to survival and development, to adequate health services, to an education, and so on:
  • Improved drinking water sources have failed to keep up with the urban population growth and neither have improved urban sanitation facilities. Where such facilities exist, they are often shared by a large number of people and are poorly maintained. 
  • High population density make it easier for disease to spread. 
  • Some diseases are preventable through immunisations, but poor service delivery and lack of information and education for parents mean many children living in slums are not immunised against such diseases.
  • One third of children living in urban areas were not registered at birth. Having no legal identity may mean they are unable to access health and other services and opportunities, like having an education.  
  • The higher levels of air pollution in urban areas can cause respiratory infections in children, which when severe, like pneumonia, claim lives. 
  • The traffic in cities is also dangerous. It is estimated that road traffic injuries is the second leading cause of death worldwide among people ages five to fourteen. 
  • HIV and AIDS has been found to be more prevalent among the urban poor. The chart below shows data from six sub-saharan African countries. Poverty can drive girls and women to commercial sex, which exposes them to sexual exploitation and forced sex. Also, children and young people in urban areas are more likely to have access to drugs and will share needles. 
  • Mental health problems among children and adolescents is also an issue - children living in urban poverty have been found to have higher levels of depression and distress than the overall urban average. An often cited factor of mental distress is the stigma of being perceived as a child of the underprivileged.
  • School attendance is much lower among children of the urban poor. This can be because of the costs associated with schooling, or due to other challenges. Schooling may also be of a poor quality if schools are overcrowded or lack facilities.
  • Child trafficking, child labour and children living and working on the streets expose children to danger and crime and very little is done to protect them. 

From chapter two of the Report

Chapter three looks at particular challenges in urban areas. It has sections on migrant children; economic shocks - and impacts on youth employment and how unemployment levels can lead to civil unrest, usually in cities, where the greatest numbers of people are; violence and crime - including that driven by inequality and the sense of deprivation and urban gangs; and natural disasters, where the urban poor are often inadequately served and ill-equipped to prepare and recover from extreme events. 

Children I met in Buenos Aires, Argentina - in traditional dress, playing music to get money.

Ways to Improve the Protection of Urban Children's Rights

The importance of collaboration between authorities and children's rights agencies is highlighted. Much emphasis is also put on the importance of child participation in urban planning and management. This may sound unusual, and is indeed not a common course of action. The Report gives examples where children have taken part in urban planning decisions, such as the mapping project in Rishi Aurobindo Colony, Kolkata, India, and also shows how children can participate in other aspects of the governance and development of their communities through the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative. 

In addition to the above, a variety of programmes which are vital to improving the protection of urban children's rights are discussed. These include programmes which : 
  • ensure non-discrimination; 
  • coordinate interventions relating to hunger and nutrition; 
  • encourage growing of food in the city;  
  • target urban health inequalities; 
  • engage young people in an effort to prevent HIV; 
  • improve water supply and sanitation and hygiene services; 
  • increase access to education for poor and marginalised children; 
  • increase child protection; 
  • develop adequate housing and infrastructure; 
  • carry out urban planning in the interest of child safety (for example, by segregating traffic and reducing driving speeds, as road traffic injuries claim a disproportionate amount of young lives); 
  • make cities safe for girls, supporting girls and preventing and reducing sexual harassment and violence in public spaces; 
  • provide safe and accessible public spaces for play; 
  • promote access to nature; 
  • enhance social cohesion and cultural inclusion and encourage cultural exchange; 
  • use technology to empower young people. 
This is an impressive list! If you have time to read Chapter four of the Report, I would recommend it, as it gives examples of projects in different countries for each of the categories I have listed above. 

Uniting for Children in an Urban World

This is the title of the last chapter of the Report. It explores five key areas in which action is required to realise the rights of children living in urban areas. They form the basis of the recommendations given in the Report's Executive Summary
  1. Better understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas.
  2. Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion.
  3. Ensure that urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and inequality meet the particular needs and priorities of children. 
  4. Promote partnership between all levels of government and the urban poor - especially children and young people.
  5. Pool the resources and energies of international, national, municipal and community actors in support of efforts to ensure that marginalised and impoverished children enjoy their full rights.
UNICEF's report has drawn attention to the difficulties faced by children living in urban poverty and has proposed various ways to help make their rights become a reality. Hopefully this will mobilise us all to take steps towards making cities child friendly, whether this is by raising awareness, or joining or supporting initiatives aimed at improving the lives of these children and protecting their rights.

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