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Giving a voice to urban children

Written by Caroline Harper

The world’s urban population is growing on average by 60 million a year. In principle, migration to urban centres opens up multiple opportunities for children – access to schooling, medical services and recreational facilities being among the most important. Yet for every door that opens, myriad others close, and often the challenges, deprivations and dangers that children are forced to negotiate as part of the urban experience negate the promised benefits. Proximity to services does not guarantee access, and all too many children are excluded from clean water, electricity and healthcare, forced to endure overcrowded living conditions and exploited for cheap labour.

Urbanisation debates have long-figured in development discourse and a wide range of projects and programmes aim to address these issues with varying degrees of success: for example the UNICEF-led Child Friendly City Initiative(a subset of Safe Cities for all programme) which aims to guide cities and other systems of local governance in the inclusion of children’s rights.

Nevertheless, we have a shamefully long way to go to ensure the human rights of every child worldwide. It is in this spirit that UNICEF quite rightly turns its gaze to focus on inequalities between urban-dwelling children in this year’s State of the World’s Children report. According to the report, the number of poor and undernourished children is increasing faster in urban than rural areas. Indeed, nutrition disparities separating rich and poor children within cities are often greater than those between urban and rural children.

Children remain invisible in development except as a ‘target’ group. More than any other socially excluded group, children face voicelessness in the family, the community and the broader political context. This has in the past facilitated an out-of-sight, out-of-mind outlook among policy-makers and political leaders. This is no longer an excuse. Not only do the statistics speak for themselves but policy-makers need only step outside the office to witness poverty in motion on their very doorsteps. So what are governments doing to combat these issues?

One of the key challenges relates to the changing context in which those working on children’s rights are operating. The vast numbers of urban unregistered are often out of sight of services, or unable to receive them services legally. For political or other reasons, those without registered status effectively don’t exist, which precludes access to health and education and thereby contributes to poor nutrition and development outcomes. In some locations, such as India, gendered discrimination is an additional issue with boys being registered above girls.

Three issues of particular importance to children’s development coalesce around urban or semi-urban areas.

  1. Young migrants, especially young, female domestic and sex workers. Often isolated in the city, they are removed from their family and support networks and subject to exploitation and abuse.
  2. Working children, including those engaged in hazardous and exploitative work. Hawking, gleaning municipal dumps, labouring in small factories­­: the city has generated the wealth to ‘employ’ them or enable a living, but leaves them stranded and vulnerable to low wages and poor condition.
  3. Childen left home alone. This issue occurs in staggering numbers where resident and migrant workers without support networks have no choice but to leave children unattended whilst they work.  According to Jody Heymann, 27% of parents interviewed in Mexico, 48% in Botswana and 19% in Vietnam had to leave their child home alone or in the care of an unpaid child, leaving them vulnerable to fires, violence, and injury.

The agendas for action are not new: social protection, child protection, labour standards, community development, service access, and public information campaigns, alongside strategies for urban economic growth and prosperity.

Urban migration can extend agency and economic choice. It can loosen exploitative and constraining social relationships such as caste or class systems, and it can lead to the creation of trade unions and social movements, which can translate the benefits of economic growth into human development. But we need to ensure that children – who are clearly prime actors in this fast changing landscape – are included in this political dimension and not simply forgotten as voiceless invisible dependents.

The urban child of today is no different from children everywhere – they rely hugely on the protection and nurturing of carers and a community so they can, if given opportunities, develop.  But generating that context of opportunity and protection in an urban environment is a new challenge, one which (as the statistics on child wellbeing outcomes tell us) is less clearly a priority for policy-makers. The urban environment starkly illuminates the relationship between inequality, child-illbeing and child protection. Addressing these as related is clearly an important agenda going forward.