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 The Lost Children
 Commentary: Reaching the unreached

The lost children

By Juan Somavía *

Copyright© UNICEF/98-0768/Fournier

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 their lives.

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.


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

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