THIRTY years have passed since the world’s nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Impressive gains have been made since then. For instance, mortality among children below five years has been brought down from 12.5 million to about 5.3 million (2018). Of course, 5.3 million is still a number which is hard to comprehend — it means that more than 14,000 young children die every day, mostly from preventable diseases.
The resurgence of measles that globally claimed 142,000 lives in 2018 (World Health Organization or WHO, Dec. 5, 2019) is illustrative of how some past achievements are being eroded. This is caused by a variety of factors, including distrust in the safety of vaccines and governments’ not giving enough importance to immunization programs. In the Philippines, the Dengvaxia scare was an added factor why parents chose not to have their children vaccinated, with the result that thousands of Filipino children have fallen ill with measles since late 2017; 20,827 cases including 199 deaths were reported in 2018, while for the period January 1 to May 11, 2019, 34,950 cases, including 477 deaths, were reported by Department of Health. This is tragic considering that measles is preventable.
Access to clean and affordable water is necessary in order to maintain proper sanitation and hygiene. These three — water, sanitation and hygiene — are prerequisites for a child’s health and “[advances] in this sector have been a major reason for historical progress in preventing child deaths,” the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) says in “Convention of the Rights of the Child at a crossroads,” a report a published in November 2019 in connection with the convention’s 30th anniversary. But effects of climate change are putting a strain on already inadequate water resources. “The number of children affected by water scarcity and lack of access to sanitation and hygiene services is likely to increase as climate change proceeds,” Unicef warns.
The January 11 editorial of medical journal The Lancet agrees with Unicef that climate change constitutes an “unprecedented threat to health and livelihood, let alone well-being” of children and adolescents. The publication, being private and thus in a better position than Unicef to criticize governments and prevailing economic and political structures, sees trends aside from climate change that run counter to the sustainable development goals that the world’s nations agreed on in 2015: “Migration, increasing conflicts, political agendas moving away from provision of social safety nets and poverty reduction even in high income countries, the continued commercial exploitation of children and young people leading to unhealthy diets, and exposure to alcohol and tobacco products mean that children and adolescents in 2020 need special attention if we are serious about a sustainable and healthy future for all,” The Lancet warned.
The people behind The Lancet believe that women, children and adolescents are “the groups that arguably matter most for the … Sustainable Development Goals.” But “there is cause for concern” as the “UN leadership’s focus has moved away from health. WHO’s prioritization of universal health care coverage has weakened the attention given to maternal, child, newborn and adolescent health.”
To walk the talk, The Lancet will focus on child and adolescent health in this year’s publications. In February, for instance, readers will be introduced to a WHO-Unicef Lancet Commission that “will put children firmly at the center of the [Sustainable Development Goals] in the hope to kick-start a new global movement.” Another big event flagged by The Lancet is the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth 2020 summit in December.
Going back to the Unicef report, education is another major area where gains notwithstanding, big challenges remain. Three decades ago the challenge was to make primary education accessible to all. Yet today, “the number of out-of-school children at the primary level has remained largely static since 2007, as increased access to primary education has barely kept pace with global child population growth — particularly in Africa.”
Unicef further notes that “a remarkably large number of children are experiencing learning difficulties.” The Philippines may have had a dismal showing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, but is likely better off than many other developing countries. Says Unicef: “Globally, only about half of children have the minimum competency in reading and numeracy at the end of primary education. If children do not learn, then much of society’s investment in education is simply wasted.”
This is a disheartening conclusion coming from the United Nation’s agency tasked with promoting the rights and welfare of children. We are reminded of the observation made by Andreas Schleicher in “PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations” that “without the right education, people will languish on the margins of society, countries will not be able to benefit from technological advances, and those advances will not translate into social progress.”
Societies must invest in the future, and invest wisely. Today’s investment in children determines how the world will look tomorrow.