UN report shows effects of poverty, war on children

UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report presents a grim picture for the holiday season. The United Nation Children’s Fund reports that more than half of all children face deprivation as a result of poverty, war and the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The 164-page report details the progress that has been made in past years, while making it clear that the progress is no-where near enough. In a foreword to the report, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urges nations to bear the report’s findings in mind when they meet in 2005 for a review of the Millennium Declaration. Annan writes, “With the childhood of so many under threat, our collective future is compromised.”

The report found that poverty, while worse in developing nations, is also a problem in industrialized nations such as the U.S. The proportion of children living in low-income households in 11 of the 15 “developed nations” rose over the past decade.

Additionally, the report seeks to expand the definition of poverty as a civil rights issue, saying that it is more than material deprivation and leaves children “unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society.”

Throughout the report, its authors emphesize that worldwide spending on defense, almost $1 trillion annually, is far higher than the amount it would take to solve many of the problems noted, estimated at $40-70 billion.

“Children do not start wars, yet they are the most vulnerable to its deadly effects,” the report states. An estimated 90 percent of all conflict-related deaths since 1990 have been civilians, 80 percent of those have been women and children.

In addition to the practices of recruitment of child soldiers, the report expresses particular concern about the lingering effects of conflict, including psychological trauma, sexual violence and lack of education.

Without making a direct comment on the U.S.-initiated wars since 2001, something UNICEF director Carol Bellamy has come under criticism for, the report cites a Human Rights Watch study that found that the cluster munitions used by coalition forces in Iraq were a major cause of civilian casualties in 2003. Additionally, the report notes that more than 100 children were recently killed in Fallujah, some on their way to school, in the conflict between Iraqis and coalition forces.

The report criticizes the political climate that leads to such conflicts. “Far from seeming safer, the world at the beginning o the 21st century appears more riven by conflict and fear — and its dominant political discourse to be one of war.”

The report also presents the stark reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis, calling on the international community to ensure access to essential services and retroviral drugs. More than just a problem of infected children, the AIDS pandemic results in children being forced to support their families as a result of the illness or death of a parent. This, the report says, plays a part in the overall poverty and deprivation of children, particularly the lack of schooling. Citing International Labor Organization assessments, the report notes that “orphaned children are much more likely than non-orphans to be working in commercial agriculture, as street vendors, in domestic service and commercial sex.”

The report’s conclusions sends what it calls an “unambiguous message” to governments: “Keep your commitments to your nation’s children.” However, the report’s findings show that “few governments have the guided by human rights principles in all of their actions towards their citizens.”

The author can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org.