LONDON (AlertNet) – The world’s rapid urbanisation means hundreds of millions of children are not getting even their most basic needs met, the United Nations children agency (UNICEF) warns in a report.
Children in slums and poor urban communities lack access to clean water, sanitation and education, as services struggle to keep up with fast urban growth, says the aid agency’s flagship State of the World’s Children report which this year focuses on urban poverty.
With the global urban population growing by around 60 million a year - and children accounting for 60 percent of that increase - the situation is likely to worsen.
“When we think of poverty, the image that traditionally comes to mind is that of a child in a rural village,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.
“But today, an increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world, deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.”
More than half the world now lives in urban areas and over one billion of them are children. Even though cities offer better access to schooling and healthcare - and child mortality rates are usually lower than in rural areas – there is great inequality among city dwellers.
Poor urban families often pay more for substandard services, the report says. For example water can cost 50 times more in poor neighbourhoods because residents who are not connected directly to water mains are forced to buy it from private vendors.
But the extent of hardship suffered by underprivileged children in cities is often hidden by statistics which group together the wealthy and the poor, UNICEF adds.
Despite the progress many countries have made in improving access to primary education, factors like income, gender and ethnicity can prevent many children in poor urban areas from enrolling.
The poorest families struggle to buy their children school materials or pay for transport, even in cities where education is free, the report says.
It cites Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe as countries where school enrollment rates improved in rural and non-slum urban areas in the late 1990s, but worsened in urban slums.
In many countries, improvements to infrastructures and sanitation are not keeping up with the rapid urbanisation of their populations.
In overcrowded urban settlements health conditions are often dire because people share poorly-maintained sanitary services and special provisions for children are non-existent.
An unhygienic environment increases the risk of deadly diseases, the report says.
In Bangladesh, for example, a 2009 household survey suggests the under-five mortality rate in slums is 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate, and 44 per cent higher than the rural rate.
Urban poverty also leaves many children vulnerable to disasters. The poorest families tend to live in flimsy homes on the least desirable land such as slopes susceptible to landslides or low ground that floods easily.
With the reality of climate change and more extreme weather patterns predicted in the near future, cyclones, floods, mudslides and earthquakes will strike even harder for millions of children living in urban poverty, the report warns.
In recent decades, over three quarters of casualties from disasters have been children in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, it adds.
UNICEF is calling for governments to put children at the heart of urban planning and improve services for all. Its report urges governments and the international community to:
• Better understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas
• Identify and remove the barriers to inclusion
• Ensure 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 marginalised and impoverished children enjoy their full rights