Children in need and living invisible lives

Feb 29, 2012
Essential Research

By Norman Gillespie – Chief Executive of UNICEF Australia.

With 89 per cent of people living in urban areas and with four of its cities making The Economist’s top 10 most liveable list (Melbourne at no. 1, Sydney at no. 4, Perth at no. 8, and Adelaide at no. 9), Australia seems to “do” urbanisation exceptionally well.

Many children enjoy the advantages that urban life offers, including access to educational, medical and recreational facilities.

More so than at any other time, the experience of childhood is an increasingly urban one. Over half the world’s 7 billion people – including more than 1 billion children – now live in cities and towns. By 2050, this number will jump to one in seven of all people.

Cities are synonymous with economic development and opportunity, with the majority of urban growth taking place in Asia and Africa.

Yet a life of opportunity is far from the reality for many children in cities. Instead, these children live invisible lives. Too many children are denied such essentials as electricity, clean water and health care – even though they may live very 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, even though they live under the most challenging conditions – in ramshackle dwellings and overcrowded settlements that are acutely vulnerable to disease and disaster.

UNICEF’s annual flagship report, State of the World’s Children, released today, finds that cities are failing hundreds of millions of children, leaving them virtually invisible and excluded from vital services. Child well-being averages are masking the widespread disparities that exist in cities for children’s rate of survival, nutritional status and education access.

Globally, one in three urban dwellers lives in slum conditions; in Africa, the proportion is a staggering six in 10. Slums are a notorious symptom of rapid urbanisation. Children grow up often without secure tenure, birth registration, running water, adequate sanitation and surrounded by disease and poverty. In Bangladesh, the under-five mortality rate for children in slums is 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate, and 44 per cent higher than the rural rate.

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 the rural-urban divide.

Every disadvantaged child bears witness to a moral offense: the failure to secure her or his rights to survive, thrive and participate in society. And every excluded child represents a missed opportunity – because when society fails to extend to urban children the services and protection that would enable them to develop as productive and creative individuals, it loses the social, cultural and economic contributions they could have made.

Over one third of children in urban areas go unregistered at birth. Birth registration gives children a name, nationality and identity. Lack of an official identity impedes children’s access to vital services and opportunities and increases their vulnerability to exploitation.

Even in Australia, significant barriers exist to the registration of the birth among Indigenous communities. The number of Aboriginal children not registered at birth is high. A birth certificate is not automatically issued to a person registering a birth. Literacy problems or a lack of confidence can make it difficult for some Aboriginal peoples to navigate the bureaucracy.

This makes it difficult to prove identity, for example, to register to vote, or complete other important tasks.

Yet the hardships faced by children in cities are often concealed – and thus perpetuated – by the statistical averages on which decisions about resource allocation are based. On the surface, the average quality of life continues to increase. Yet herein lies the very problem: averages lump everyone together, the poverty of some is obscured by the wealth of others.

In Australia, three groups were recently identified as being particularly vulnerable to being left behind; children from Indigenous backgrounds, children in out-of-home care and children of refugees and migrants. These three groups live primarily in cities.

Child and youth homelessness remains a prevailing social problem and reports show that shelters and other supported accommodation services are stretched to capacity and are forced to turn people away.

Some 30 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in major cities, and a further 20 per cent live in major inner-regional towns. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have child mortality rates of three times their non-Aboriginal peers and are the least consulted in Australian policy; Aboriginal children aged 10-17 are 24 times more likely to be jailed than non-Aboriginal children and Aboriginal children are almost 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care.

These are major challenges, but they are not insurmountable. How we deal with them will prove how we develop as a fair society.

We would do well to begin by asking our urban planners and policymakers to pay much greater attention to the rights and interests of children. That means bringing children’s voices into community and local government policy in the implementation and planning of cities.

All this needs to be within a child-focused policy framework, sadly lacking in Australia. The unified call by Australian child rights organisations for a National Children’s Commissioner would go part of the way to address the shortfalls in oversight of policy, accountability, monitoring and participation.

We must do more to reach all children in need, wherever they live, wherever they are excluded and left behind. Some might ask whether all countries can afford to do this, especially at a time of global 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?

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