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
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.
Somavía is the Director-General of the International Labour
Organization. See profile.