Foreign Policy Blogs

UNICEF State of the World’s Children Released

UNICEF has recently published their flagship publication, The State of the World’s Children, which each year examines a key issue affecting children.  Last year’s report,  The State of the World’s Children 2011: Adolescence – An Age of Opportunity, focused on adolescence; this year’s report highlights the shift of the world population to urban areas and the effects of this on children.

Every year, the world’s urban population increases by about 60 million.  Over half the global population, including more than a billion children, currently reside in urban areas, and by 2050, 7 in 10 people will live in cities and towns.  The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World therefore calls for greater emphasis on identifying and meeting the needs of urban children.

Children in urban areas are more likely to survive their early years and, on average, benefit from better health and education, than their rural counterparts. However, according to UNICEF, the gap between the rich and the poor is often more pronounced in cities, creating a greater disparity in basic needs and rights.  According to UNICEF, while many children are able to enjoy the advantages of urban life, including access to education, medical and recreational facilities, far too many are not.  Many children are denied basic essentials such as clean water, electricity and health care, despite their proximity 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, although they already live under the most challenging conditions – in ramshackle dwellings and overcrowded settlements that are highly vulnerable to disease and disaster.  According to UNICEF, one in three city dwellers lives in slums, while in Africa the proportion increases to six in ten.

Challenges Faced by Urban Children:

  • Insufficient access to water and sanitation (mostly due to the rising cost of water in slums)
  • Growing hunger and malnutrition rates
  • Heightened risk of road traffic injuries
  • Inadequate shelter (homes made from flimsy materials and unsanitary conditions)
  • Mounting risks of respiratory illness, asthma and lead poisoning
  • Risk child trafficking for sex and labor and becoming victims of violence

Birth Registration

In addition to all of these challenges, UNICEF asserts that many children living in urban poverty aren’t registered at birth, making them virtually invisible to lawmakers, which only compounds the above-listed risks and limits their access to aid and resources.  Without birth registration, children are not recognized by the state and are without an official identity- in legal terms they do not exist. Without document to provide proof of their age or who they are, children are likely to be discriminated against and denied access to basic services such as health and education.  Children without birth registration are also at an even greater risk for exploitation and trafficking. According to UNICEF, over one-third of children in urban slum areas are unregistered at birth. This number rises to half of all children in urban parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Sanitation and Nutrition

The State of the World’s Children 2012 report highlights that while children are growing up in close proximity to modern facilities and basic services, many remain without access to electricity and clean water. They are also at high risk of contracting diseases due to unsanitary conditions, as well as suffering from malnutrition, all of which impede children’s full development.  Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions facilitate transmission of diseases, most notably pneumonia and diarrhea, the two leading killers of children under the age of five worldwide. According to the report, “outbreaks of measles, tuberculosis and other vaccine-preventable diseases are also more frequent in these areas, where population density is high and immunization levels are low.”  While global vaccine coverage continues to increase, the report warns that it remains low in areas such as slums and informal settlements.

The report also states that children who live in slums face hunger and malnutrition. Poor nutrition is responsible for more than a third of deaths globally for children under the age of five.  “Those children who receive the sufficient calories for their daily activities are also at great risk and can suffer the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient malnutrition,” the report warns.  As I wrote in the recent post, 500 Million Children at Risk of Malnutrition, often families are uneducated on the effects of nutrition as a whole and issues such as exclusive breast feeding for the first six months and feeding their children from the basic food groups. Children are not always undernourished due to extreme poverty; how often or how much they are fed also plays a significant factor.

Disparities in Education

It is true that cities on the average provide better schools and those children in urban areas have better educational opportunities than those in rural areas.  However, urban areas are also prone to some of the greatest disparities; children in slums and informal settlements, migrant children and children working on the streets are  rarely placed into school or given a quality education.

The education gap in urban areas is often equal or greater than that  in rural areas. For example, Benin and Venezuela have a 20% higher gap in education between the richest and poorest in urban over rural areas, according to the report, which based its findings on the Deprivation and Marginalization in Education analysis in the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report.  “ Especially in slums, where public education options are scarce, families face a choice between paying for their children to attend overcrowded private schools of poor quality or withdrawing their children from school altogether.“ Even when schooling is free, ancillary expenses – uniforms, classroom supplies or exam fees, for example – are often high enough to prevent children from attending school.  Excluding 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”, said UNICEF’s executive director, Anthony Lake.

Without education, many children go on to work in the streets or join criminal gangs, which offer the promise of financial rewards and a sense of belonging, the report states.

Key Recommendations of the Report
According to UNICEF, as the numbers of children growing up in urban areas continues to rise, we must ensure that they have access to the rights and opportunities they need to realize their  potential. Urgent action must be taken to:

  • Better understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas
  • Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion
  • Ensure that urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and inequality meet the particular needs and priorities of children
  • Promote partnership between all levels of government and the urban poor – especially children and young people
  • Pool the resources and energies of international, national, municipal and community actors in support of efforts to ensure that marginalized and impoverished children enjoy their full rights

As urbanization continues to grow we must invest in children residing in urban areas, especially those in slum dwellings, to ensure their fundamental rights and respond to their basic needs.



Cassandra Clifford
Cassandra Clifford

Cassandra Clifford is the Founder and Executive Director of Bridge to Freedom Foundation, which works to enhance and improve the services and opportunities available to survivors of modern slavery. She holds an M.A., International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland, as well as a B.A., Marketing and A.S., Fashion Merchandise/Marketing from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Cassandra has previously worked in both the corporate and charity sector for various industries and causes, including; Child Trafficking, Learning Disabilities, Publishing, Marketing, Public Relations and Fashion. Currently Cassandra is conducting independent research on the use of rape as a weapon of war, as well as America’s Pimp Culture and its Impact on Modern Slavery. In addition to her many purists Cassandra is also working to develop a series of children’s books.

Cassandra currently resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where she also writes for the Examiner, as the DC Human Rights Examiner, and serves as an active leadership member of DC Stop Modern Slavery.

Areas of Focus:
Children's Rights; Human Rights; Conflict