We’re building a new UNICEF.org.
As we swap out old for new, pages will be in transition. Thanks for your patience – please keep coming back to see the improvements.

Press centre

Press release

The State of the World's Children: Childhood under threat

Childhood is a brutal experience for half of world's children, UNICEF says -- Crucial years destroyed by poverty, conflict, and AIDS

'As children go, so go nations'

LONDON, 9 DECEMBER 2004 – Despite the near universal embrace of standards for protecting childhood, a new UNICEF report shows that more than half the world’s children are suffering extreme deprivations from poverty, war and HIV/AIDS, conditions that are effectively denying children a childhood and holding back the development of nations.
Launching her 10th annual report on The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said more than 1 billion children are denied the healthy and protected upbringing promised by 1989’s Convention on the Rights of the Child – the world’s most widely adopted human rights treaty. The report stresses that the failure by governments to live up to the Convention’s standards causes permanent damage to children and in turn blocks progress toward human rights and economic advancement.

“Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood,” Bellamy said in launching the report at the London School of Economics. “Poverty doesn’t come from nowhere; war doesn’t emerge from nothing; AIDS doesn’t spread by choice of its own. These are our choices.

“When half the world’s children are growing up hungry and unhealthy, when schools have become targets and whole villages are being emptied by AIDS, we’ve failed to deliver on the promise of childhood,” Bellamy said. 

The report – entitled “Childhood Under Threat” – examines three of the most widespread and devastating factors threatening childhood today: HIV/AIDS, conflict, and poverty.

Seven deadly deprivations

The report argues that children experience poverty differently from adults and that traditional income or consumption measurements do not capture how poverty actually impacts on childhood.  It instead offers an analysis of the seven basic “deprivations” that children do feel and which powerfully impact on their futures.  Working with researchers at the London School of Economics and Bristol University, UNICEF concluded that more than half the children in the developing world are severely deprived of one or more of the goods and services essential to childhood.

  • 640 million children do not have adequate shelter
  • 500 million children have no access to sanitation 
  • 400 million children do not have access to safe water
  • 300 million children lack access to information (TV, radio or newspapers)
  • 270 million children have no access to health care services
  • 140 million children, the majority of them girls, have never been to school
  • 90 million children are severely food deprived

Even more disturbing is the fact that at least 700 million children suffer from at least two or more of the deprivations, the report states.

The report also makes clear that poverty is not exclusive to developing countries.  In 11 of 15 industrialized nations for which comparable data are available, the proportion of children living in low-income households during the last decade has risen.

A growing war on childhood

Along with poor governance, extreme poverty is also among the central elements in the emergence of conflict, especially within countries, as armed factions vie for ill-managed national resources.  The report notes that 55 of 59 armed conflicts that took place between 1990 and 2003 involved war within, rather than between, countries.

The impact on children has been high: Nearly half of the 3.6 million people killed in war since 1990 have been children, according to the report.  And children are no longer immune from being singled out as targets, a trend underscored by the September 2004 attack on schoolchildren in Beslan, Russian Federation.

The report also outlines where the world stands on a ten-point agenda to protect children from conflict, first enunciated by UNICEF in 1995.  It examines trends in child soldiers, rape as a weapon of war, war crimes against children, and the damage caused by sanctions, among other issues, and finds that although some progress has been made it has been far from sufficient to ameliorate the impact of war on children’s lives.

For example, hundreds of thousands of children are still recruited or abducted as soldiers, suffer sexual violence, are victims of landmines, are forced to witness violence and killing and are often orphaned by violence. In the 1990s, around 20 million children were forced by conflict to leave their homes.

Conflict also has a catastrophic impact on overall health conditions.  In a typical five-year war, the under-five mortality rate increases by 13 percent, the report states.

And with conflict aggravating existing poverty, the report emphasizes the need for greater global attention and investment in post-conflict situations, to ensure a steady and stable transition to development. 

When adults keep dying

The impact of HIV/AIDS on children is seen most dramatically in the wave of AIDS orphans that has now grown to 15 million worldwide.

The death of a parent pervades every aspect of a child’s life, the report finds, from emotional well-being to physical security, mental development and overall health. But children suffer the pernicious effects of HIV/AIDS long before they are orphaned. Because of the financial pressures created by a caregiver’s illness, many children whose families are affected by HIV/AIDS, especially girls, are forced to drop out of school in order to work or care for their families. They face an increased risk of engaging in hazardous labour and of being otherwise exploited.

HIV/AIDS is not only killing parents but is destroying the protective network of adults in children’s lives. Many of the ailing and dying are teachers, health workers and other adults on whom children rely. And because AIDS prevalence grows in condensed pockets, once adults start dying the overall impact on surviving children in a community is devastating.

Because of the time lag between HIV infection and death from AIDS, the crisis will worsen for at least the next decade, even if new infections were to immediately stabilize or begin to fall.  The report details the measures that nations must employ to prevent the spread of AIDS, keep adults living with HIV alive, and provide nurturing and care for children already orphaned.

Putting children first

The State of the World’s Children argues that bridging the gap between the ideal childhood and the reality experienced by half the world’s children is a matter of choice. It requires:

  • Adopting a human rights-based approach to social and economic development, with a special emphasis on reaching the most vulnerable children.
  • The adoption of socially responsible policies in all spheres of development that keep children specifically in mind.
  • Increased investment in children by donors and governments, with national budgets monitored and analyzed from the perspective of their impact on children.
  • The commitment of individuals, families, businesses and communities to get involved and stay engaged in bettering the lives of children and to use their resources to promote and protect children’s rights.

“The approval of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was our global moment of clarity that human progress can only really happen when every child has a healthy and protected childhood,” Bellamy said. 

“But the quality of a child’s life depends on decisions made every day in households, communities and in the halls of government.  We must make those choices wisely, and with children’s best interests in mind.  If we fail to secure childhood, we will fail to reach our larger, global goals for human rights and economic development.  As children go, so go nations.  It’s that simple.”

For further information about SOWC and interviews, please contact:

UNICEF Media, New York: (+1 212) 326-7261
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, (+1 646) 247-2975
Jehane Sedky-Lavandero, UNICEF Media, (+1 917) 660-5307
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media, Geneva (+41 22) 909-5712
Kate Donovan, UNICEF Media, New York (+1 212) 326-7452




The State of the World's Children 2005

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report for 2005 focuses on how poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS threaten children around the globe.

Go to the State of the World's Children 2005

New enhanced search