Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan

Out of sight, out of reach

Half the world’s population now lives in cities. Throughout history, urban life, so concentrated with humanity, has been a catalyst for trade, ideas and opportunities, making cities engines of economic growth. Today, living in a city is widely regarded as the best way to find prosperity and escape poverty. Yet hidden inside cities, wrapped in a cloak of statistics, are millions of children struggling to survive. They are neither in rural areas nor in truly urban quarters. They live in squalor, on land where a city has outpaced itself, expanding in population but not in vital infrastructure or services. These are children in slums and deprived neighbourhoods, children shouldering the many burdens of living in that grey area between countryside and city, invisible to the authorities, lost in a hazy world of statistical averages that conceal inequality.

The contrast could not be more ironic. Cities, where children flourish with good schools and accessible health care, are where they also suffer greatly, denied their basic human rights to an education and a life of opportunity. Side by side, wealth juxtaposed against poverty, nowhere else is the iniquity of inequity as obvious as in a city.

Over the course of a decade, the state of the world’s urban children has worsened. The number of people living in slums has increased by over 60 million. These are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sons and daughters, scratching out a life in shantytowns the world over. With the direct disadvantages of urban poverty – disease, crime, violence – come indirect ones, social and cultural barriers, like gender and ethnicity, that deny children from the slums the chance to enrol in and complete primary school. Education is pushed out of reach because there are not enough public schools or the costs are too high. Religious groups, non-governmental organizations and entrepreneurs try to fill the gap but struggle without government support or regulation. As the best chance to escape their parents’ destinies eludes these children, the cycle of destitution spins on.

In the Arab world the facts are clear: More than one third of the urban population lives in informal settlements and slums. These environments are hazardous to children; a lack of adequate sanitation and drinkable water poses a major threat to their well-being. In some less developed Arab countries, overcrowding in makeshift houses further aggravates the precarious health conditions of these vulnerable families.

For Palestinian children, city life can be a grim life. Too often, it represents guns and checkpoints, fear and insecurity. Yet their greatest hope is their national pride: a deep-seated belief in education, which they know is essential for building a life and rebuilding their country. Yet, since 1999, across Occupied Palestinian Territory, the number of primary-schoolaged children who are out of school has leapt from 4,000 to 110,000, a staggering 2,650 per cent increase. In Gaza, among the world’s most densely populated areas, access to and quality of education have deteriorated rapidly. For the sake of these children’s futures and of the all-important search for regional peace, we must set aside our anger and angst and give them the childhoods they deserve, childhoods we expect for our own children, filled with happy memories and equal opportunities.

In a few Arab countries, the fates of disadvantaged urban children are being rewritten. In Morocco, the government programme ‘Cities without Slums’ hopes to raise the standards of nearly 300,000 homes. By engaging banks and housing developers, a ‘triple win’ scenario is possible for poor people, the government and the private sector. Jordan, too, is making strides. Amman is one of the region’s leading child-friendly cities, with over 28,000 students participating in children’s municipal councils to prioritize their needs, rights and interests. The results have been impressive: parks, libraries, community spaces, educational support for children who dropped out of school, campaigns against violence and abuse, and information and communication technology centres for the deaf.

Yet for Arab children – for all children – to thrive, nations have to work together. We have to share resources, adopt and adapt successful initiatives from around the globe and encourage our private sectors to engage with disadvantaged families so we can catch those falling through the cracks. In cities across the world, children out of reach are too often out of sight. If we are to raise their hopes and their prospects, we have to dig deep into the data, unroot entrenched prejudices and give every child an equal chance at life. Only in this way can we truly advance the state of all the world’s children.

Panels

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