The Progress of Nations

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 The lost children
 Commentary: Reaching the unreached

Reckless endangerment

The lives of these lost children are endangered from birth, by malnutrition, frequent disease and unhygienic environments. All are children of the poor; they number some 600 million and subsist on less than $1 a day.

They can be found in many of the overlapping populations known through numbing statistics: the more than 200 million children whose growth has been stunted, the nearly 170 million who are underweight. They are counted among the 40 per cent to 50 per cent of iron deficient children under five in developing countries. They are there amidst the 31 million refugees and internally displaced in camps around the world, and amidst the nearly 1 billion people who entered this new century unable to read and write.

The lost children may well be those from ethnic minorities who lack fluency in a national language and whose traditions are not part of a country’s dominant culture. Excluded in this way, they may also be denied their rights to citizenship and education, and thus are more vulnerable to exploitation.

They are often children who are isolated geographically, living in areas with few schools and other basic services.

Their lives are circumscribed by work. Children as young as five can be found in rural areas toiling on their parents’ farms or alongside adults in the fields of commercial agriculture in both industrialized and developing countries. In some cases, children under 10 years of age account for one fifth of the child labour force in rural areas.

Gruelling agricultural work, with its extremes of heat and cold, long hours, repetitive motions and lifting, strains young bodies. Exposure to chemicals and pesticides is common: In rural areas, more child workers in agriculture, for example, are estimated to die from pesticide poisoning than from all of the most common childhood diseases put together. The work is so onerous that those lucky enough to attend school after a day in the field are often too exhausted to learn.

Many of the lost children are girls. Gender discrimination combines with poverty to crush girls’ sense of autonomy and self, as well as their potential. In many poor families, for instance, when choices are made about whether to send a daughter or a son to school, it is gender that tips the scale against the girl.

As a result, millions are shunted away from education onto the well-worn path of domestic work, labouring at home for their own families or outside their home for others. They are among the least visible of all children exploited in this manner, because the domestic tasks performed by girls and women are often not even dignified with the label of ‘work’. The obscurity and low status of their toil put girls at further risk: Many are both physically and sexually abused.

Then, in one of the most brutal extremes befalling these lost children, millions – primarily girls – are forced into the netherworld of commercial sexual trafficking and exploitation. Because of the clandestine and criminal nature of these activities, statistics are imprecise. But it is estimated that trafficking in children and women for commercial sexual purposes in Asia and the Pacific alone has victimized over 30 million people during the last three decades.

In Nepal, between 5,000 and 7,000 girls are believed to be trafficked every year across the border to neighbouring countries. The abuse these children endure has long-term, life-threatening consequences, including psychological trauma, the risk of early pregnancy and its attendant dangers, and HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

Education is every child's right; nothing can compare or compete with it, and when it is of good quality and relevant to children’s lives, it truly can fight poverty.

Another heinous form of exploitation that children are subjected to is conscription or coercion into armed conflict. An estimated 300,000 children under the age of 18 have been reported as serving in government or opposition forces during the 1990s in myriad countries.

In Liberia, where a vicious seven-year-long civil war raged until 1997, the conflict drove 750,000 Liberians from their country, left more than 1 million internally displaced and killed more than 150,000 people. As many as 15,000 children, some as young as six, served as soldiers. Many of these boys were considered ‘hard-core combatants’ – youths who had been forced to commit atrocities against their own families or villages as a show of loyalty to their commanders. Another brutal side of the conflict saw thousands of girls forced into sexual slavery by the warring factions.

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