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Making childhood poverty history

id21 insight #56

June 2005

SARPN acknowledges the IDS website as the source of this document -
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About 600 million children worldwide are growing up in absolute poverty. Over ten million children under five years of age die every year. Nearly one billion children will be growing up with impaired mental development by 2020.

Childhood poverty has significant and longterm implications. By the age of five we have laid our mental groundwork – perceptions, emotions, desires and feelings – for how we essentially will be 20 or 30 years later. By ten our capacity for basic learning has been determined. By age 15 our body size, reproductive potential and general health have been greatly influenced by what has happened in our lives thus far.

Stunting in children cannot be reversed. Children cannot recover from preventable disabilities. Nor can they fully reclaim the first 15 years of growth and development later on in life. Since everything from brain connection to employment potential is laid down in these formative years, investing in child well-being is not only a social and moral imperative but also a logical and economically sound investment strategy. Tackling childhood poverty and its transmission over generations and over a life-course is the way to addressing chronic and adult poverty.

Child well-being has improved in recent years. Infant mortality rates, for example, have improved globally. Between 1970 and 2002, infant deaths fell from 130 to 67 for every 1000 live births in South Asia and from 141 to 104 in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there are still some alarming trends. Child ill-health has increased, suggesting that although children survive they have a poor quality of life due to frequent sickness. Child wellbeing has declined in some countries, including those experiencing conflict or economic crisis. Childhood poverty is a problem even in countries with growing economies.

Several economic, political, environmental and social factors influence poverty and its transmission to children. They range from individual volition and the social context to global conditions and policies on child development:

  • Nutrition is vital for child survival and early development. Damage in early childhood can have long-term effects, slowing down learning and increasing risks of maternal and child mortality in later life. In 2000, over 150 million pre-school children were underweight and 200 million were stunted. Many of these children will suffer from ill-health as adults.

  • Good quality formal education combined with informal education to develop life skills as well as having educated parents can help improve opportunities for children. However, inability to pay is a big obstacle to a child’s education.

  • Child labour perpetuates poverty although it can sometimes enable children to attend school – an important factor in breaking poverty cycles. Child work is highest among the poorest 20 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa and among children who do not attend school, although a high proportion of those who attend school also work.

  • Adequate family income is important for a child’s development but raising family income may also increase ‘time poverty’ as parents have less time for child care. As a result, children do not receive important life skills education at home, older siblings have to take on child care activities instead of attending school and children could be physically and emotionally neglected.

  • Family and social bonding to nurture, guide, love and protect children is crucial as it can encourage positive aspirations, boost confidence and enhance many aspects of an individual’s life from employment potential to emotional security. Damage to the social fabric through economic stress, war or HIV will adversely affect children.

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