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Child Poverty: the Facts and the Future

Your in-depth guide to child poverty and how we can tackle the challenges.


poverty

What is child poverty?

Child. Poverty. Two words that should never be put together. Yet tragically this is the reality for an estimated 385 million children, accounting for more than half of the world’s extreme poor.

It can feel like an insurmountable problem – but we are making progress and there is plenty of cause for hope and further action. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved. That’s 1 billion fewer people living in poverty today. 

Yet, while the numbers of people trapped in extreme poverty are declining, the rate of release is slowing, so that in many parts of the world we are not currently on track to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, the first Sustainable Development Goal. With nearly 600 million people still deeply entrenched in poverty – over half of them children – we still have a long way to go.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific issues and what we can do to continue to effect change and bring an end to child poverty in our world.

Why focus on child poverty, not just poverty as a whole?

It’s down to a tragic yet undeniable formula: children in poverty grow into adults in poverty – and the cycle of poverty is then perpetuated.

BUT release a child from poverty – and you free a future adult (and potentially an entire family) from poverty.

In a world in which one in three children are identified as multi-dimensionally poor (compared with one in six adults), consider the impact that each of the following indicators has on a child …

Child poverty issue 1: Food and nutrition

Hunger and malnutrition are not the same thing.

Too many children in our world today are starving. But starvation is not the only food-related enemy. A child can have a full stomach, yet still suffer from a dangerous deprivation of the vitamins and minerals they need to thrive.

remote Compassion projects

Malnutrition is responsible for half of all deaths in children under 5 years of age, claiming the lives of over 3 million children every year and those who do survive are affected for life … unless intervention comes in time. 

Malnutrition kicks off a chain reaction

  • Poor nutrition drastically weakens a child’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to sickness.
  • Chronic and acute sickness hamper cognitive function (the brain’s ability to learn and develop).
  • Poor learning & attendance at school affects a child’s education. 
  • Low levels of education affect a child's subsequent earning power in adulthood.
  • A child who began life in poverty may grow into an adult trapped in poverty with a family of their own … trapped in poverty (back to beginning of cycle). 

Stunting

Children who suffer from malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of their life are also highly susceptible to stunting, a condition in which growth and development are impaired. The visible, physical effect is that a child’s height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards median, and their strength and mobility is affected. The unseen internal repercussions of stunting are vast and steal a child’s future. 

Cause for hope

Nutrition interventions can help minimise the effects of stunting or even stop it in its tracks, restoring potential to a child’s future.

When we provide children with the nutrition and healthcare they need in their first two years of life, we are attacking poverty in its infancy, rather than allowing it to attack infants themselves.

Lance is one child who has suffered greatly due to malnourishment. Thankfully, he's been given back his future through nutritional and health interventions.


hungry no more

Poverty has stunted Lance’s growth, and at 8 years old he looks like a 4-year-old. He suffered from acute malnourishment and for years he was too weak to lift himself up and walk. Child sponsorship has enabled Lance to receive proper nourishment and healthcare. While still small for his age, Lance is now healthy and strong enough to play with other children.

Child poverty issue 2: Healthcare

The need for proper nutrition, especially in infancy and childhood, is closely linked to the need for access to affordable healthcare. While we strive to eradicate poverty as swiftly as possible, each year about 100 million people are forced into poverty as a result of health-related expenses. 

Healthcare workers

  • Issue: Aside from affordability, the availability of healthcare workers is also a problem. Sub-Saharan Africa has a health worker deficit of 1.8 million – a figure which, without immediate and concerted action, will rise to 4.3 million over the next 20 years as the population rises.
  • Way forward:  The maths is clear on this one. The additional cost of providing sub-Saharan Africa with another 1 million community health workers would be an estimated US$3.1 billion per year. The return on that investment, in addition to the lives saved and suffering reduced, would be an estimated US$19.4 billion per year from enhanced productivity. 

Prenatal care for babies

baby girl smiling

  • Issue: A lack of healthcare or nutrition impacts a child’s life from birth (and even beforehand).
  • Way forward: Research estimates that 40% of neonatal deaths could be averted with key interventions around the time of birth. These include care by a skilled birth attendant, emergency obstetric care, immediate newborn care and newborn resuscitation. Another 30% could be saved through ‘kangaroo mother’ care with skin-to-skin contact starting from birth and other basic methods of prevention, management and treatment of neonatal issues

Prenatal care for mothers

  • Issue: Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childhood, with 99% of maternal deaths occurring in developing countries
  • Way forward: Providing pregnant women with the healthcare they need simultaneously protects the woman’s health and helps to prevent her child from being orphaned at birth. To protect the mother is to protect the baby.

Defence against preventable diseases

HIV/AIDS testing and treatment

  • Issue: Each year of the last decade, at least 10 million children under the age of 18 lost either one or both parents to AIDS. According to UNAIDS, in 2017 there were approximately 36.9 million people worldwide known to be living with HIV/AIDS. Of these, 1.8 million were children, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa and were infected by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
  • Way forward: Progress is being made through providing mothers with medicine. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of pregnant women living with HIV who had access to antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies increased by 33% (Source, 2017).

Child poverty issue 3: Education

Education is a huge key to unlocking the futures of children who are being held captive by poverty.

Classroom in Ghana

More than 260 million of the world’s children are not in school, while hundreds of millions are attending school yet not receiving any real education. Here are just a handful of the results from the World Data Report 2018 highlighting the importance of making sure every child receives a quality education:

  • Quality childhood education benefits the individual child and society as a whole. 
  • The quality of a child’s education directly influences their learning results. No big surprise there, yet hundreds of millions of children today cannot read, write or perform basic maths equations despite attending school. 
  • More schooling leads to higher wages. For each year of additional effective schooling, individual adult earnings increase by an average of 10%.
  • Quality education in early childhood impacts the ability to learn, think, process and problem-solve – for life. 

Cause for hope

There has been a significant increase in the push to make early childhood and primary education universally accessible. The Global Partnership for Education reports that:

  • 77 million more children were in primary school in 2016 in GPE partner countries compared to 2002.
  • 38% of children were enrolled in pre-primary education in GPE partner countries in 2016 compared to 19% in 2002.


If current trends continue, between 2017 and 2030, at least 22 million children will miss out on the pre-primary education so critical to their later ability to succeed in school and beyond. Funding and facilitating education as early as possible is of vital importance to stemming the tide of child poverty.

If all children born today in lower-middle income countries could be educated to even a basic level of literacy and numeracy skills, there would be a 13-fold increase in GDP over their lifetimes. When we take care of today’s children by providing nourishment, healthcare and basic education, we systematically empower them to take care of themselves (and their families) as adults.

Child poverty issue 4: Gender 

There’s no way to talk about education and poverty without acknowledging the enormous impact of the gender gap.

A worldwide study of human development levels (quality of life and levels of personal productivity and growth) compared with gender equality levels, confirms an undeniable link between the two. The 10 countries ranking lowest on the Human Development Index – Niger, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Chad, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Mali, Liberia and Mozambique – had the highest levels of gender inequality. 

For girls, this impacts every area of life:

Girls have far less access to education than boys. Female youths are 1.7 times more likely to be illiterate than male youths.

skipping rope kenya

According to 2018 findings by the World Bank, girls given access to better education grow into women who:

  • are healthier
  • participate more in the formal labour market
  • earn higher incomes
  • have fewer children
  • marry at a later age
  • are less vulnerable to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM)
  • are able to provide better health care and education for their own children, should they choose to become mothers.

This combination of factors has enormous potential to lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty and to improve women’s rights. Notably, the better educated a society’s girls are, the more rights and influence they have as women.

Enforced early marriage

Globally, 1 in 5 girls are married before age 18. If child marriage does not decrease, there will be 1.2 billion women who were married as children by 2050.

Child brides face multiple threats including:

  • isolation, limited freedom and disempowerment
  • deprivation of their human rights to health, education and safety
  • sexual abuse and resulting physical, emotional and mental issues
  • dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth
  • increased likelihood of contracting HIV/AIDS
  • domestic violence
  • perpetuated poverty due to their lack of access to education and economic opportunity.


Cause for hope

Thankfully, the last decade has seen a 15% decrease in the proportion of women married as children.

Child marriage Thailand

Hmong girls like Noojee are vulnerable to the harmful cultural practice of bride kidnapping and early marriage. In Noojee’s village, the local church, in partnership with Compassion, is fighting this practice, striving to ensure that Hmong girls receive an education and are treated as equals to boys.

Fighting FGM in Kenya

Florence managed to escape the cultural rite of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage, and has dedicated her life to providing at-risk Kenyan girls with an opportunity to achieve their full potential through her work as a teacher and community leader at her local Compassion project. 

Child poverty issue 5: water and sanitation

Water is life. But 663 million people in our world don’t have access to safe drinking water, while 946 million don’t have access to proper sanitation, having no choice but to defecate in the open. A 2017 report shows a staggering level of inequality in access to WASH services around the world, including specific impacts on children. 

Effective WASH services hold the key to:

  • Reducing diarrhoea and other enteric diseases.
  • Diarrheal diseases are the second highest contributors to global child mortality, causing about 10% of all deaths in children under five years. 
  • Empowering children to attend school.
  • On average, women and children around the world spend 200 million hours every day collecting water.
  • An estimated one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle.
  • Up to 80% of illnesses in the developing world are caused by poor water and sanitation conditions, leading to children being absent from school – either because the children themselves fall sick, or because they have to stay home and look after a sick family member. In the case of a parent or guardian falling sick, it means loss of work, plunging the family deeper into poverty.
  • Reduce levels of malnutrition and stunting. In Indonesia, only 5% of urban wastewater is safely treated and disposed of, and children living in communities with open defecation during the first 1,000 days of life are 11 percentage points more likely to be stunted. 

Cause for hope:

In 2015, 6.6 billion people – 91% of the global population – used an improved drinking water source compared with 82% in 2000.

Yet, despite significant overall increase in the provision of improved WASH facilities over the last two decades, as of 2017 only Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe are close to achieving universal basic water services. That’s a lot of the world still in need of safe water and improved sanitation.

Issue 6: Climate change and disaster relief 

Disasters, many of which are exacerbated by climate change and are increasing in frequency and intensity, impede progress towards sustainable development. On average there is about one major disaster recorded on the global databases every day on earth, and intensity may be increasing, in some cases as a result of climate change. 

Chennai rains

 

Children living in extreme poverty are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, due to:

  • lack of access to both preventative vaccines and medical care following illness or injury.
  • increased chance of contagion through unsafe water and poor sanitation.
  • low levels of immunity to disease due to food instability and insufficient nutrient supply.
  • homes which are already unsafe shelters and therefore are subject to greater impact by natural disasters.

Cause for hope

We do not have to leave the poorest of the poor defenseless against disasters and climate change. We have the strategic planning knowledge to minimise risks from tsunamis, floods and cyclones through the use of disaster preparedness plans, land-use plans and early warning systems. 

Preparation in advance of disasters is both a humanitarian and financial necessity. It’s estimated that investment in humanitarian preparedness in high-risk contexts yields an average financial return of 200%! That means every US$1 spent on preparing is worth an average US$2 needed in the event of an emergency. 

How can one person make a difference to child poverty?

It’s about one person, empowering one child.

Happy children from Togo

 

Every child has the right to a childhood – one that will enable them to thrive in the future. They cannot (and should never have to) provide themselves with all that they need – food, healthcare, clothing, shelter, education or psychosocially nurturing environments in which they are known, loved and protected. It is the role of the world’s ‘grown-ups’ to give every child their own opportunity to ‘grow up’ – to grow into their full human potential.

Child poverty is a holistic problem, requiring a holistic solution.

Compassion is a leading Christian child development charity, working with local churches in developing countries to release children from poverty. Our approach is a personal one: we link a child in poverty with a sponsor to empower them to break the cycle of poverty.

Through child sponsorship, we’re impacting children, families, communities and entire nations.



WORDS : Becca Stanley

PHOTOS : Compassion International


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