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Reaching the unreached: the lost children

By Juan Somavia - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Barely heard and hardly seen, hundreds of millions of children endure grave and multiple violations of their rights. Among these children are the millions who labour on farms and in factories, who are trapped in commercial sexual exploitation, child soldiers, the millions not registered at birth, those lacking access to clean water and education, those not immunized and the millions living on the streets. The plight of all these children demands far more than the muted response it has so far evoked from the global community.

Breathtaking numbers of children are lost every day around the globe. Far too many - 30,500 each day, 11 million each year - die from largely preventable causes. But as heartbreaking and senseless as those deaths are, it is not about them that I write. I am speaking of the millions upon millions of children who are lost among the living. Made virtually invisible by the deepest poverty, not registered at birth - and thus denied official acknowledgement of their name and nationality and the protection of their rights - they endure in profound obscurity.

The lost children are the most exploited, the poorest of the poor: child soldiers, girls in brothels, young bonded workers in the factories, sweatshops, fields and homes of our seemingly prosperous globe. They are robbed of their health, their growth, their education - and often even their lives. Of the estimated 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 who are economically active, some 50 million to 60 million between the ages of 5 and 11 are engaged in such intolerable forms of labour.


To grasp the scale of the numbers, imagine a country as populous as the United States, in which the entire population is made up of child labourers. Then imagine further, within that population, an underclass of children more numerous than the citizens of France or the United Kingdom, working in conditions that cripple their bodies and minds, stunt their growth and shorten their lives. No one would tolerate such an abomination if it were visible and concentrated in one place. Yet we continue to tolerate it in a hidden and dispersed form, to our collective peril and shame.

Reckless endangerment

The lives of these lost children are endangered from birth, by malnutrition, frequent disease and unhygienic environments. All are children of the poor; they number some 600 million and subsist on less than $1 a day. They can be found in many of the overlapping populations known through numbing statistics: the more than 200 million children whose growth has been stunted, the nearly 170 million who are underweight. They are counted among the 40 per cent to 50 per cent of iron-deficient children under five in developing countries. They are there amidst the 31 million refugees and internally displaced in camps around the world, and amidst the nearly one billion people who entered this new century unable to read and write.

The lost children may well be those from ethnic minorities who lack fluency in a national language and whose traditions are not part of a country's dominant culture. Excluded in this way, they may also be denied their rights to citizenship and education, and thus are more vulnerable to exploitation. They are often children who are isolated geographically, living in areas with few schools and other basic services.

Their lives are circumscribed by work. Children as young as five can be found in rural areas toiling on their parents' farms or alongside adults in the fields of commercial agriculture in both industrialized and developing countries. In some cases, children under 10 years of age account for one fifth of the child labour force in rural areas.

Gruelling agricultural work, with its extremes of heat and cold, long hours, repetitive motions and lifting, strains young bodies. Exposure to chemicals and pesticides is common: in rural areas, more child workers in agriculture, for example, are estimated to die from pesticide poisoning than from all of the most common childhood diseases put together. The work is so onerous that those lucky enough to attend school after a day in the field are often too exhausted to learn.

Many of the lost children are girls. Gender discrimination combines with poverty to crush girls' sense of autonomy and self, as well as their potential. In many poor families, for instance, when choices are made about whether to send a daughter or a son to school, it is gender that tips the scale against the girl. As a result, millions are shunted away from education onto the well-worn path of domestic work, labouring at home for their own families or outside their home for others. They are among the least visible of all children exploited in this manner, because the domestic tasks performed by girls and women are often not even dignified with the label of 'work'. The obscurity and low status of their toil put girls at further risk: Many are both physically and sexually abused.


Then, in one of the most brutal extremes befalling these lost children, millions - primarily girls - are forced into the netherworld of commercial sexual trafficking and exploitation. Because of the clandestine and criminal nature of these activities, statistics are imprecise. But it is estimated that trafficking in children and women for commercial sexual purposes in Asia and the Pacific alone has victimized over 30 million people during the last three decades. In Nepal, between 5,000 and 7,000 girls are believed to be trafficked every year across the border to neighbouring countries. The abuse these children endure has long-term, life-threatening consequences, including psychological trauma, the risk of early pregnancy and its attendant dangers, and HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

Another heinous form of exploitation that children are subjected to is conscription or coercion into armed conflict. An estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18 have been reported as serving in government or opposition forces during the 1990s in myriad countries.

In Liberia, where a vicious seven-year-long civil war raged until 1997, the conflict drove 750,000 Liberians from their country, left more than 1 million internally displaced and killed more than 150,000 people. As many as 15,000 children, some as young as six, served as soldiers. Many of these boys were considered 'hard-core combatants' - youths who had been forced to commit atrocities against their own families or villages as a show of loyalty to their commanders. Another brutal side of the conflict saw thousands of girls forced into sexual slavery by the warring factions.

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This article was first published in The Progress of Nations 2000, published by UNICEF. The supplementary data can be viewed on the UNICEF website.

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About the Author

Juan Somavía is Director-General of the International Labour Organization based in Geneva. He participated in restoring democracy in his native land of Chile through his role as President of the International Commission of the Democratic Coalition in Chile and as Secretary-General of the South American Peace Commission.

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