The United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to promote and develop constructive relations between the United Nations and civil society organizations.
The State of the World’s Children, the annual flagship report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is this year dedicated to “Children in an Urban World,” drawing attention to the fact that over a billion children are living in a more and more urbanized world. “Already, half of all people live in urban areas. By mid-century, over two thirds of the global population will call these places home,” the report explains.
Cities are often perceived as a synonym for economic growth, development and employment. However, in reality, not all children are benefitting form urban growth. In this regard, the report draws attention to the fact that many children living in cities still lack access to education, health and sanitation.
Featuring five chapters, as well as different graphs and statistical tables, the UNICEF report aims to show the reality in which children in an urban world live; the challenges they face; and the main urban problems that affect their lives. The report also presents a number of examples of initiatives that try to improve the quality of life of these children; and it identifies policies that are needed to address urban disparities.
Children in a more and more urbanizing world
The report explains that it estimated that by 2050, 7 in 10 people will live in urban areas; that every year, the world’s urban population will increase by approximately 60 million people; and that most of this growth is taking place in low- and middle-income countries with Asia being home to half of the world’s urban population. Despite the fact that the overall urbanization rate in Africa is low, its urban population is larger than in North America or Western Europe. According to the report, “more than 6 in 10 Africans who live in urban areas reside in slums.”
Based on an analysis of cities that was undertaken in 2008, the report notes that approximately 60% of the urban growth is the result of new-born children in urban areas. It also finds that this analysis of the situation of cities, as well as the statistical data used, do not sufficiently reflect the magnitude of the problems that the urban population encounter. For example, people in informal settlements or jobs are not registered, even thought they are the most affected by poverty and discrimination. Moreover, it does not examine the costs of transportation, rent, sanitation, health, water, or any other costs that can negatively influence the quality of life of these people.
Other factors identified in the report that can worsen the living conditions of cities are a lack of participation in decision-making processes; illegality; insecurity; a lack of support and legal protection; gender discrimination, the lack of access to infrastructure and basic services, such as health, education, healthy food, water, sanitation, hygiene and security.
There are various phenomena that can have an impact on the lives of urban children, including migration, economic shocks, violence, criminality, and disaster risks.
The report notes that any type of forced or voluntary migration will influence the lives of children in some way or another. In order to protect their childhood, adequate measures will need to be taken. “A recent analysis of census and household data from 12 countries found that one in five migrant children aged 12–14 and half of those aged 15–17 had moved without a parent.” The risks that these children need to confront are huge and bring emotional consequences, the report further explains. Many are excluded from their basis rights; others are facing harassment, exploitation and gender violence.
The economic crises have generated high levels of unemployment, especially among young people, and deteriorated working conditions, reduced wages, and brought price fluctuations. The increase of food prices is especially affecting poor people that spend about 50% to 80% of their incomes on food, leaving them with fewer resources to invest in education, health, transport or other basic needs.
The exposure of children to violence and criminality can hinder their development, as it can force children to leave school before the legal age or it can increase anxiety, depression, and aggression. Also the report notes that “A study of 24 of the world’s 50 wealthiest countries confirmed that more unequal societies are more likely to experience problems associated with this kind of relative deprivation: high rates of crime, violence and imprisonment.”
The risks that are brought about by natural disasters, such as cyclones, flooding, earthquakes, droughts and post-disaster conditions, can further deteriorate the poverty situation of millions of children that live in cities. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the occurrence of natural disasters has increased tenfold, with children being among the most vulnerable injury or death. “Over three quarters of casualties in recent decades have been children in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia,” the report explains.
Towards cities fit for children
With the objective to build cities that are more appropriate for children to grow up in, the report notes that it is important to consider their childhood in the design and managements of urban areas. Decentralization and training of public entities are examples of national policies that can help increase the protection of boys and girls en different countries. Moreover, a wide collaboration among authorities and institutions that protect the rights of children can advance this process. In any case, a bottom-up approach is recommended so that civil society and community-based organizations – that are most familiar with the needs of disadvantaged groups – can facilitate the participation of such groups and draw attention to their needs.
Measures that are needed
The report concludes by proposing a range of measures that can improve the development of cities and better protect the rights of children to have a good childhood. As such, it proposes to do a complete analysis of the scope and nature of urban poverty and exclusion that affect children. This will not only increase people’s understanding of exclusion processes, but it can also help identify and address barriers in terms of access to services, juridical protection, and ownership rights. On the other hand, governments should respond to the specific and priority needs of children by developing and making available the necessary infrastructure and services. The participation of children and young people in public policy-making is also recommended, as is the strengthening of the collaboration and coordination between actors at different levels in order to create sustainable and long-term changes.
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