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Breaking the cycle: Understanding multidimensional child poverty

KUALA LUMPUR, 17 October 2011

UNICEF Representative to Malaysia
Special Representative to Brunei

© UNICEF Malaysia/2011/Nadchatram
UNICEF’s view is that children living in poverty experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their full potential or participate as equal members of society.

Every day, countless children experience the crippling effects of child poverty. A little girl may face a lifetime of ill health because her parents live too remotely to have access to good healthcare. A young boy thirsting for interaction and love endures loneliness and isolation. He is constantly left alone at home because his parents need to work and can’t afford childcare. Scenarios like these are a part of life for scores of children all across the world.

There’s no doubt that child poverty is a tremendous obstacle that stands between children and their rights. Every child deserves access to quality education, food, clean water and other necessities like a safe environment and good healthcare, but for children in the throes of poverty, these rights remain a far off dream.

View our photo essay on child poverty around the world

Multiple deprivations

Most people would define poverty as a lack of money. A poor child would consequently be a child whose essential needs are not met due to a shortage of money. However, child poverty is linked to far more than the absence of material wealth. UNICEF’s view is that children living in poverty experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society.

Children experience poverty differently compared to adults and child poverty is a critical, complex, multigenerational matter. Children are often caught in an ongoing cycle of poverty through no fault of their own. For instance, parents who are unable to provide for a child’s education inadvertently impede the child’s ability to become a successful member of the workforce. This could relegate him or her to a life of inherited financial hardship.

Child poverty also affects the country as a whole. It is a heavy burden on a nation’s economy when children who are deprived of their needs, grow up to become less healthy, undereducated, and less productive citizens. Lower productivity, heavier health demands and higher crime rates drain the country’s resources and divert attention from other essential needs, impeding the country’s progress.

Measuring child poverty

The Malaysia Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 highlights some disturbing statistics. Despite the fact that overall poverty declined from 20% to 4% between 1989 and 2007, it is estimated that over 720,000 children, below 15 years of age, are still subjected to the harsh realities of child poverty in this country.

Life is complex and multidimensional. Poverty and deprivation reflect life. Child poverty is not merely a single issue but a multi-faceted concept that needs to be measured accordingly. At UNICEF, we talk about multidimensional child poverty. Measuring child poverty using this approach takes into account a child’s financial standing as well as a range of well-being dimensions such as health, safety, education, nutrition and shelter. Even family and peer relationships are important to complete the full picture.

We need to weigh in all of the aspects that affect a child’s well-being and opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. If the child is financially comfortable but there is neglect or abuse, it means that the child is severely lacking the love and attention needed to grow into adulthood. This can be viewed as child poverty.

UNICEF’s role

UNICEF is currently working to establish multidimensional child poverty as a concept that would allow policy makers, teachers, parents and other care givers a better understanding of what is needed for our children to grow up to become emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy adults. We are currently working in collaboration with various ministries to address multidimensional child poverty.

For instance, it is estimated that there are about 17,000 children in Malaysia who drop out of school each year, with poverty being one of the contributing factors. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to collect detailed data to understand the complex issues around school dropouts and how to deal with them.

As we approach the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on the 17th of October, let’s think about what we can do to improve the lives of the youngest among us; hapless children who deserve far more than a life of deprivation and hardship. We need to make sure that every child reaps the fruits of Malaysia’s incredible development and that Vision 2020 can be a vision, and eventually a reality for everyone.

In the UNICEF office in Kuala Lumpur we have put our own vision and mission on the wall as a constant reminder of what we want to help achieve in this country: “A Malaysia where it is the best place for a child to be born.”





Hans Olsen

UNICEF Representative, Malaysia

Photo Essay: Children left behind

Day for the Eradication of Poverty

          17 October

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