Children in an urban world: Rights denied, opportunities squandered


The day is rapidly approaching when the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, as more than one billion already do. Many of these places are riven by inequalities – in the enjoyment of rights, the distribution of power and resources and, most profoundly, children’s chances of staying alive and getting ahead.

As UNICEF notes in The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World, urban inequality confronts us daily. Hundreds of millions of children and young people endure deprivation and vulnerability in the very urban centres that are home to commercial, political and cultural elites. Too many spend their days picking through rubbish for something to sell or making bricks for other people’s homes. They spend their nights in makeshift dwellings under threat of eviction or on the street.

On paper, children living in urban poverty have the full range of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights recognized by international instruments. The most rapidly and widely ratified of these is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In reality, these children endure the worst conditions and have the greatest needs of any urban dweller. In other words, they face the greatest violations of their rights.

The violations begin on day one

On paper, every child has the right to be registered at birth and to have a name, the right to acquire a nationality and to preserve her or his identity. In reality, more than one in three children in the world’s cities and towns go unregistered at birth. In the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, almost every other child is unregistered. Rendered invisible by the lack of an official identity, they are at vastly greater risk of exploitation and abuse: being forced into an armed group, hazardous work or child marriage, for example. Even those who avoid these perils may be unable to access such vital services as schooling.

Registration alone is no guarantee of access to services or protection from abuse. But the obligations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be easily disregarded when, in effect, entire settlements can be deemed not to exist and people can be stripped of their citizenship rights for want of papers.

On paper, every child has the right to survive and develop to her or his fullest potential, as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of living. In reality, nearly eight million children died in 2010 before reaching the age of five due to pneumonia, diarrhoea and birth complications. Those living in cramped and unsanitary informal urban settlements – slums – are particularly vulnerable. In Bangladesh, 2009 data show that the under-five mortality rate in slums was 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate.

Under the Convention, every child has the right to an education. In reality, the odds are stacked against children from impoverished urban backgrounds – and from early on. While 25 per cent of children in Egypt’s urban areas attended kindergarten in 2005-2006, only four per cent of those from the poorest urban households enjoyed access to this service.

Inadequate living conditions are among the most pervasive violations of children’s rights. The lack of decent and secure housing and such infrastructure as water and sanitation systems condemns millions of children in urban areas to poor health, stunted physical or mental development, or death. Even people with identity papers may be denied proper rental agreements or other means of shielding themselves and their children against arbitrary eviction. As contributors to the report observe, women and children often must work near their dwellings so they are close at hand in case the local landlord or authorities appear with bulldozers or hired goons. When the constant threat of eviction is removed, children start going to school and parents feel more confident about investing in proper shelter.

Clearly, granting secure tenure to families living in informal settlements must be a priority. Registration must be extended to all – and services must be extended to all children regardless of whether they have this piece of paper or that. Children must not be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucracy, nor bureaucracy used as a ruse with which to deprive them of their rights.

On paper, children’s entitlements include the right to take part in making decisions that affect them and their communities. In reality, they are denied this right – especially if they happen to be poor or come from the wrong neighbourhood or ethnic community.

Representation and participation are rights, but if this were not enough in itself, the report provides examples from numerous cities that show that where the excluded have been included in urban planning and decision-making, advancements have followed – in literacy, infrastructure and safety, for example. It recommends ways in which governments, donors and international organizations can advance inclusive urban governance and life for the benefit of all, starting with children.

This point should not be lost on those more given to instrumentalist arguments; the denial of the right to participation excludes those with the most at stake – and often, the most to offer – from the process of finding solutions that improve their lives and those of countless others.

The author of this blog posting, Abid Aslam, is the  Editor of the UNICEF report ‘The State of the World’s Children: Children in an Urban World’. Photo shows girl in Kirkuk, Iraq, collecting scrap metal that her family will use to reinforce their home – a small space with curtains for walls on the top floor of a former football stadium. Image provided courtesy of Unicef. © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2316/Michael Kamber

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of CESR.