My young teenage son watched the Oscar award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire last week, and although he enjoyed the drama and romance, he came away with a slew of poignant questions about the urban poor. Do they all live in slums? Why is there so much violence? How do the children survive?
An urban dweller himself, he wondered how his world could be so acutely different from the world of the children in the film. He and his sister never have to worry about shelter, clothing or where their next meal will come from. They attend some of the country’s best schools and have access to some of the country’s best doctors.
All of this stands in sad and stark contrast to the information released yesterday in UNICEF‘s flagship annual report, The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World. As UNICEF warns, our cities are failing our children.
Hundreds of millions of children live in urban slums. The great irony is that even though many of them live within a stone’s throw of hospitals and schools, community centers and facilities with plumbing and electricity, all too often they have no access to even these most basic of these services. Water for example, can cost 50 times more for the poor than for the wealthy. Why? In wealthy neighborhoods, houses are connected to water mains. In poor neighborhoods, houses may not have plumbing and residents have to buy this basic resource from private vendors.
“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,” said Abid Aslam, the editor of the report.
In fact, 1 in 3 people who live in cities, live in slum conditions. In Africa, it’s 6 in 10. By 2050, UNICEF estimates two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban settings. And who risks falling through the cracks? The children. As the report notes,
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.
The very real problem is that as more and more people migrate to urban areas in search of work and a better life for themselves and their families, infrastructure services are not keeping up with the growth. Children born in cities already account for 60% of the increase in urban populations. Add to that the fact that one third of children in urban areas don’t get birth certificates and therefore can’t get into social programs, and that poor children are often forced to forgo school in order to work and earn money for their families. Soon you have a such a perfect storm of inequity that generations risk being swallowed up.
As UNICEF’s executive director Anthony Lake wrote in the forward:
When many of us think of the world’s poorest children, the image that comes readily to mind is that of a child going hungry in a remote rural community in sub-Saharan Africa – as so many are today. But as The State of the World’s Children 2012 shows with clarity and urgency, millions of children in cities and towns all over the world are also at risk of being left behind… They are vulnerable to dangers ranging from violence and exploitation to the injuries, illnesses and death that result from living in crowded settlements atop hazardous rubbish dumps or alongside railroad tracks.
UNICEF is calling on governments to improve infrastructure and services to children, to identify and remove the barriers to inclusion, promote partnerships with the urban poor, particularly children and youth, and pool resources so that marginalized populations can enjoy their full rights.
“Excluding these children in slums not only robs them of the chance to reach their full potential; it robs their societies of the economic benefits of having a well-educated, healthy urban population,” Lake said yesterday.
I’d like to be able to tell my son that things will change for his generation, but in order for that to happen, governments need to heed The State of the World’s Children‘s recommendations by putting children at the heart of urban planning and extending and improving services for all.
Take a look at this video about the launch of The State of the World’s Children 2012 report:
Photo credit: anuradha_sengupta via flickr