Panel 3 - Children's risks in societies on the edge
In Fatsi, a small village in Ethiopia's northern province of Tigray, Hadgu Michaele, 12, still manages to attend school every day, a feat testifying to his own and his community's courage and determination. Fatsi is 10 kilometres from the border with Eritrea, and since hostilities between the two countries began in 1998, the primary school has moved three times to avoid the shelling. Teachers and students now trek up a steep and treacherous footpath to classes held in a cave, deep within cliffs of a rocky plateau, safe from gunfire.
That footpath is both harsh reality for the children of Fatsi and a metaphor for the steep struggles facing hundreds of millions of children like them throughout the world today. Over the past 10 years, armed conflicts, economic and political crises, natural disasters and AIDS and other diseases have grown in strength, frequency and complexity, posing daunting new threats to children's lives and rights.
When a society's foundations are laid on the shallow soil of poverty and underdevelopment, it can crumble quickly. Health clinics are destroyed in a hail of bullets, education is derailed in an economic crisis, flood waters wash away homes and hope. And with only the slimmest of margins between stability and social meltdown, the health and well-being of women and children are almost invariably the first assets a country loses - or sacrifices - when a crisis occurs.
Currently, an estimated 540 million, or one in four, children in the world live with the ominous and ever-present hum of violence that might erupt at any time, or are displaced within their countries or made refugees by conflicts that are already raging. Hundreds of thousands are buffeted by floods and droughts in repetitive patterns. Many of those same children are among the more than 600 million children already beset by unyielding and merciless poverty.
The losses they face are hard to imagine, let alone capture statistically. The child risk measure developed by UNICEF in 1999 goes some of the way towards quantifying the toll complex forces such as conflict and AIDS take on the most vulnerable and least visible, the children. In 30 of the 163 countries in which it was calculated, the risk is an ominous 20 points above the world average, and 24 of the 30 countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. There, risks confronting children are 10 to 13 times those faced by a child in Australia, Norway or the United States. A child in Angola faces the greatest risks of all.
More time and resources need to be devoted to developing and sharpening measures such as this one, to gauge the changing and increasingly complex risks to children abroad in the world. Only through such analysis can children be protected better in present crises and can future ones be prevented.