Children in the Pacific
The Pacific Island countries are home to about 2 million people of which just over 900,000 are children below 18 years of age. Some 400,000 of these children live in the five countries – Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Samoa – classified by the United Nations as least developed countries.
Despite their relatively small population, the 14 Pacific Island Countries have unique challenges arising from their wide-spread geographical location (covering over 30 million km of ocean) and their wide cultural diversity. There are also different levels of vulnerability and economic and social development, both within and between countries. Social and economic development is constrained by geographic isolation, frequent natural disasters, limited domestic markets, inadequate infrastructure and capacity constraints.
Globalisation, economic modernization, and new lifestyle aspirations have created problems of cash poverty, lack of opportunity, social isolation, and inequality across the Pacific. Adding to these problems are unfavorable policies and regulatory environments for trade and private sector development in a region where governments tend to dominate many economies.
Most economies have by and large recovered from the global financial and economic crisis, but per capita GDP levels have barely or not yet returned to their pre-crisis 2007 values while growth prospects remain weak (ADB, 2012). Inflation has come down but food prices are still high. Results from the third round of sentinel site monitoring carried out by UNICEF in 2011/12 confirm that vulnerable households continue to struggle with the high costs of living and resort to coping strategies that are raising risks faced by children. Such coping mechanisms include, among others, shifting diets towards cheaper and low quality foods; dropping out of secondary school; selling of household assets; and migration in search of employment. Parents do strive to protect the food consumption and schooling of their children (UNICEF, 2012). Youth unemployment is a real challenge and it is estimated that up to one on five women and men aged 16-24 years are unemployed.
Poverty and inequality
Poverty varies widely between but also within countries across the Pacific (PIFS, 2012). The proportion of the population living below the national basic needs poverty line ranges from 13 percent in Vanuatu to 35 percent in Fiji. Poverty is significantly higher in rural areas compared to urban centres in Fiji, Palau, Samoa and Tonga. Conversely, urban areas are disadvantaged in Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. There is evidence that households with children, single women and persons with disabilities are more susceptible to poverty. Income inequality is especially high in Nauru with a Gini coefficient of 0.67. Various government-financed social transfer schemes operate across the region to help tackle poverty and vulnerability. Six Pacific island countries maintain non-contributory pension schemes; two deliver disability benefits; but only Fiji and the Cook Islands have grants specifically targeting children (AusAID, 2012). Recent micro-simulations for selected Pacific countries show that the introduction of small but affordable child benefits could achieve significant reductions in poverty (Samson, 2012).
Progress towards Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
According to the 2012 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report, the region (excluding PNG) is on track towards reducing child mortality, with mixed progress on all the other goals. All but three countries have primary school attendance rates in the 90 percent range and gender parity has largely been achieved. However, the quality of education and high drop-out among young adolescents remain a concern. The region faces a double burden of malnutrition and infectious diseases on the one hand and overnutrition and non-communicable diseases on the other. The prevalence of HIV remains low, but high teenage pregnancy rates, pervasive gender-based violence and high prevalence of STDs in many of the countries suggest a real danger of a rapid increase in HIV. The 2012 visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation to the South Pacific highlighted shortcomings in related legal and institutional frameworks in several countries. Overall, only Cook Islands and Niue are on track to achieve all of the MDGs. Other countries with notable progress include Fiji, Palau, Samoa and Tonga; while Solomon Islands and Kiribati are lagging behind (PIFS, 2012).
Natural hazards & climate change: Pacific island countries continue to be among the most vulnerable in the world due to their high exposure to natural hazards and low capacity to manage resulting risks. The 2012 UN World Risk Index identified Vanuatu and Tonga as the two countries with the largest disaster risk worldwide. Climate change is increasing the magnitude of extreme weather events like cyclones, droughts, and flooding. Low-lying atoll islands are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Kiribati, for example, is now pursuing an agenda of ‘migration with dignity’ in response to the threats of climate change.
Policy and legislative environment: Social and economic policies across the region are increasingly addressing the rights of vulnerable groups. Children, youth and women feature prominently in the newest generation of national development strategies in Kiribati (KDS 2012-2015), Samoa (SDS 2012-2016), Solomon Islands (NDS 2011-2020), Tonga (TSDF 2011-2014) and Cook Islands (NSDP 2011-2015). In Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, new laws and policies have given government and civil society organizations a mandate and framework to address violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect of children. Moreover, leaders of the Pacific Island Forum endorsed a landmark Gender Equality Declaration in 2012, signaling high-level political commitment to gender-responsive policies and programmes in line with CEDAW.