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Sex abuse, work and war deny childhood to tens of millions

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 9 Jul 2006 00:00 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2010. Click For Restrictions.
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By Ruth Gidley

Which is worse: being forced by a soldier to cut off another child&${esc.hash}39;s ears with a machete in northern Uganda, risking rape on the streets of a Brazilian slum or being blowtorched by a boss in Togo?

The clear answer from an AlertNet poll of the world&${esc.hash}39;s most dangerous places for children is that this is an impossible question - they&${esc.hash}39;re all situations that no child should have to face, and yet thousands do, every day.

"It seems to me any place where there is some combination of conflict, breakdown of services, economic collapse or absence of governance is a potential deathtrap for children," said Christian Science Monitor journalist Fred Weir.

When AlertNet asked aid workers and journalists to think of the most dangerous place to be a child, they came up with a top 10 list that shines the spotlight on the world&${esc.hash}39;s worst humanitarian hotspots, including Sudan, northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Myanmar.

But their responses also highlighted a gamut of poverty-related suffering that rarely make world headlines. The top 10 list included India, where millions of hungry children are forced into hard labour and prostitution

There were wars that didn&${esc.hash}39;t grab the poll limelight, but received enough votes to reflect their magnitude. Colombia - where more than 3 million people have been driven from their homes and medical agency Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) estimates 37 percent of displaced people have witnessed the killing of parents, children or siblings - narrowly missed the top 10.

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Child refugees, many of them on their own without loving families to protect them, featured prominently in the survey responses.

"There are large groups of children in every region of the world who are regularly overlooked by the media because their tragedy transcends geographic divides," Refugees International Research Director Maureen Lynch said.

"They are practically invisible to the public eye."

Even once wars are over, children face the risk of sexual exploitation in squalid camps, or landmines that kill and maim up to 10,000 children every year, according to the U.N. children&${esc.hash}39;s agency, UNICEF.

It&${esc.hash}39;s not just war that puts children at risk. There&${esc.hash}39;s the eternal problem of how to scrape together enough to eat.

Catholic aid agency CAFOD&${esc.hash}39;s media chief, Patrick Nicholson, put it succinctly: "Poverty kills."

Out of every 100 children born in 2000, 30 will likely suffer malnutrition, and 17 will never go to school, UNICEF says. About 30,000 children a day die before their fifth birthday, mostly from illnesses that could easily be prevented with clean water and vaccines.

In South Africa, where almost one in five people between 15 and 49 years old are HIV-positive, children are put at extra risk by the myth that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

AIDS is also rife in Zimbabwe, a nation in the throes of a political and humanitarian crisis that has helped to turn it from Africa&${esc.hash}39;s breadbasket into the country with the world&${esc.hash}39;s lowest life expectancy and sky-high inflation rates that make it hard to buy the most basic staple foods.

Both countries had a smattering of votes, while some respondents mentioned concern for poor children in many parts of the world who face early marriage, sexual exploitation, forced labour or virtual slavery.

An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year for labour or sex, and about 1 million children are thought to be exploited in the multi-billion dollar sex industry, UNICEF says.

The western African country of Togo - where annual gross domestic product per capita was just ${esc.dollar}362 in 2003 - was singled out for high risks to children of being trafficked or suffering brutal beatings by teachers and bosses. A June report on violence against children in Togo by the U.N.&${esc.hash}39;s news wire, IRIN, cited at least one case of a boy being burnt with a blowtorch for falling asleep on the job.

"Unpaid and untrained teachers (in Togo) use children to work on their land, sometimes in exchange for better grades," communications manager Elayne Devlin of children&${esc.hash}39;s aid agency Plan International said.


Togo is not the only western African country where violent abuse of children is endemic. An Oxfam aid worker reported that it&${esc.hash}39;s common practice in parts of Liberia to punish naughty children by forcing their hands into boiling oil.

A lot of people mentioned child labour in their poll answers, with 218 million working children in the world, according to the U.N. International Labour Organisation. Some 5.7 million work in especially horrific circumstances, including the virtual slavery of bonded labour.

Aid experts expressed outrage at quasi-slavery in crisis-ridden Haiti, child labour in Uzbekistan&${esc.hash}39;s cotton fields, and under-age labourers&${esc.hash}39; breaking ships into scrap metal in Bangladesh.

Sex attacks, prostitution and drug addiction are dangers for tens of millions of children who live on the streets and rubbish dumps of the world&${esc.hash}39;s cities. Poll respondents mentioned Brazil as a particularly high-risk country for street children, who are regularly killed by vigilantes who view them as little more than pests.

There&${esc.hash}39;s urban poverty in rich countries too, and a couple of respondents voted for the United States, citing gun crime and the execution of minors in some states.

Disasters experts said children in the world&${esc.hash}39;s quake-prone zones were in constant danger in rickety homes and schools.

"It may not cause a change in the top three &${esc.hash}39;most dangerous&${esc.hash}39; places in the world for children (but) in any given year an infrequent, high-impact event (like an earthquake) may rank very high in terms of cause of deaths," Marla Petal, a consultant for Turkey&${esc.hash}39;s Earthquake Research Institute, said.

If schools were made quake-proof, it might have saved more than 16,000 children who died in them in an October earthquake in Kashmir.

"This is one of those unacceptable things that we can do something about," Petal said.

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