Plight of the world's 'invisible' children

She struggles to hold back the flood of tears that threatens to ruin her neatly pressed coveralls. Soon the floodgates open as she recounts the details of the past five-and-a-half years spent in jail.

Nkeiruka became pregnant while unmarried, which is considered a taboo among the Igbo community in Nigeria to which she belongs.
In December 1999, the then 15-year-old Nkeiruka gave birth unassisted at home, and her child died as a result of complications. Her uncle accused her of killing her newborn, and Nkeiruka and her mother, Monica, were arrested and taken to prison in Anambra state.

Now 21, Nkeiruka faces an uncertain future. She was one of the world’s “invisible” children, millions of whom die every year, despite efforts to provide them with the necessary services that could save their lives.

These “invisible” children are highlighted in a new United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report, The State of the World’s Children 2006: Excluded and Invisible, released on Wednesday.

The agency said millions of children disappear from view when trafficked or forced to work in domestic servitude, which makes them invisible.

Other children, such as street children, live in plain sight but are excluded from fundamental services and protections. Not only do these children endure abuse, but most are also shut out from schools, health care and other vital services they so desperately need to grow and thrive.

The Unicef report marks the 60th year of the organisation’s existence. It is a sweeping assessment of the world’s most vulnerable children, the ones who are invisible in everything: from public debate and legislation to statistics and news stories. These are the children that are the most difficult to protect.

Millennium goals

Apart from shocking statistics—including the fact that an estimated 171-million children around the world are working in hazardous conditions with dangerous machinery—the report also deals with meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“Meeting the Millennium Development Goals depends on reaching vulnerable children throughout the developing world,” said Unicef executive director Ann M Veneman, launching the report in London. “There cannot be lasting progress if we continue to overlook the children most in need—the poorest and most vulnerable, the exploited and the abused.”

The world has agreed on a road map to a better future in the form of the MDGs, which stem from the Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000 by 189 countries. The goals set quantitative targets to address extreme poverty and hunger, child and maternal mortality, HIV/Aids and other diseases, while promoting universal primary education, gender equality, environmental sustainability and a global partnership for development by 2015.

The MDGs for 2015 are to:

  • eradicate extreme hunger and poverty;
  • achieve universal primary education;
  • promote gender equality and empower women;
  • reduce child mortality;
  • improve maternal health;
  • combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
  • ensure environmental stability; and
  • develop a global partnership for development: develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory.

The stakes are high: if the above MDGs are met, an estimated 500-million people will escape poverty by 2015; 250-million will be spared from hunger; and 30-million children, who would not have lived past their fifth birthday, will survive. Meeting the goals is, therefore, a matter of life or death—of progress or a step backward—for millions of children.

Unless many more of these invisible children are reached, several of the MDGs—particularly the goal on universal primary education—will simply not be met on time or in full.

Governments bear primary responsibility for reaching out to these children, and must step up their efforts in four key areas:

  • Research, monitoring and reporting: Systems to record and report on the nature and extent of abuses against children are essential to reaching excluded and invisible children.
  • Legislation: National laws must match international commitments to children, and legislation that fosters discrimination must be changed or abolished. Laws to prosecute those who harm children must be consistently enforced.
  • Financing and capacity-building: Child-focused budgets and the strengthening of institutions that serve children must complement laws and research.
  • Programmes: Reform is urgently required in many countries and communities to remove entry barriers for children who are excluded from essential services, for example, eliminating the requirement of a birth certificate to attend school.

The report also outlines concrete actions that can be taken by civil society, the private sector, donors and the media to help prevent children from falling between the cracks.

It finds that children who lack vital services are more vulnerable to exploitation because they have less information on how to protect themselves, and fewer economic alternatives. Children who are caught in armed conflict, for example, are routinely subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. It is these children—alone and defenseless—who are being ignored.

Circumstances

The report argues that children in four types of circumstances are most likely to become invisible and forgotten: those without a formal identity, those without parental care, those in adult roles and those who are exploited.

Every year, more than half of all births in the developing world (excluding China) go unregistered, denying more than 50-million children a basic birthright: recognition as a citizen. Children who are not registered at birth do not appear in official statistics and are not acknowledged as members of their society. Simply put: children who do not have a formal identity are not counted, and they are not taken into account.

Millions of orphans, street children and children in detention are growing up without the loving care and protection of their parents or a family environment. Children caught in these circumstances are often not treated as children at all. For example: globally, tens of millions of children spend a large portion of their lives on the streets, where they are exposed to all forms of abuse and exploitation.

More than a million children live in detention, the vast majority awaiting trial for minor offenses. Many of these children suffer gross neglect, violence, and trauma.

The report argues that children who are forced into adult roles too early miss crucial stages of childhood development. Hundreds of thousands of children are caught up in armed conflict as combatants, messengers, porters, cooks and sex slaves for armed groups. In many cases, they have been forcibly abducted. And in spite of laws against early marriage in many countries, more than 80-million girls across the developing world will be married before they turn 18.

Exploitation

Among the most invisible are children who are exploited. They are shut away by their abusers and held back from school and essential services. Their lives and numbers are virtually impossible to track.

About 8,4-million children work in the worst forms of child labour, including prostitution and debt bondage, where children are exploited in slave-like conditions to pay off a debt. Nearly two million children are used in the commercial sex trade, where they routinely face sexual and physical violence. And a vast but unknown number of children are exploited as domestic servants in private homes.

So-called “fragile states” are also inhabited by millions of invisible children. Children in fragile states—countries that are unable or unwilling to provide basic services for their children—encounter discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or disability.

Governments, families and communities must do more to prevent abuse and exploitation from happening in the first place and protect children who fall victim to abuse. Laws that hold perpetrators of crimes against children accountable must be implemented and vigorously enforced; attitudes, traditions and practices that are harmful to children must be challenged; and children themselves must get the information and life skills they need to protect themselves, the report concludes.

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