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Children living in Nairobi's informal settlements lack access to basic services and opportunities

By Pamela Sittoni

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, was launched on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

NAIROBI, Kenya, 14 March 2012 – As his peers in Korogocho, an informal settlement  in Nairobi, leave for school, 15-year-old John Kinuthia sets off too. But instead of heading to school, he walks half a kilometre to the city’s largest dumpsite to eke out a living.

UNICEF reports on a 15-year-old boy's struggle to get by in one of Nairobi's crowded informal settlements.  Watch in RealPlayer


At the dump, John joins men, women and children scurrying about the garbage. None of them have protective clothing, gloves or masks. All they have are hooks, which they use to fish out items, and gunny bags to bring their wares to buyers.

“I rummage through the mounds of garbage for plastics, clothes, shoes… anything that I can sell for a little money,” John said. The items either make it to factories for recycling or, in the case of clothes, cutlery, electronic and the household goods, they are re-sold in the streets.

Life in the slums

Between 1980 and 2009, the population of Nairobi, the capital, ballooned from 862,000 to about 3.4 million – a growth accompanied by increasing rates of poverty and poor health outcomes. Around two thirds of the city’s population now lives in crowded informal settlements, often with poor access to basic services.

John dropped out of school in 2010, when his mother could no longer afford it. Although primary education is free, parents are expected to buy uniform and desks for their children and contribute to school projects.

Fifteen-year-old John Kinuthia collects saleable items from a dumpsite in Nairobi.

His mother, Jemima Wambui, wishes he could go back to school. But her earnings, from selling chapati  bread on the roadside, are simply not enough. “I have to fend for John and his sister, and her four children. I have to clothe them, feed them and pay the rent. They all rely on me,” she said.

John’s neighbor, Bonventure Odhiambo, 15, is also out of school. Bonventure dropped out of school after the death of his grandmother in western Kenya, where he had been living. He had to join his mother in Nairobi, and now spends his days watching his young sisters. There is no space in the informal settlement for them to play.

Their mother, Selina Atieno, said, “I couldn’t raise the money to buy a desk and new uniform. The school also required his birth certificate before he could be enrolled in standard eight . The process of getting him a birth certificate is also cumbersome. But I really wish he could go to school.”

Like John, Ms. Atieno works at the dump, earning barely enough to pay rent and buy food and water for the family.

They and their neighbours have no access to basic sanitation or health services; open drains along the roads flow with filth. They are lucky to have water points, but lack electricity.

Jemima Wambui sells chapati bread from her roadside stand, but does not earn enough to afford her son's schooling costs.

A need for data

According to local priest and educator John Webootsa, the area has only two public primary schools. “These schools serve only a small fraction of the population of this area… Other parents have to struggle to send their children to the informal schools, which are privately run.”

As a result, about 30 per cent of children in this informal settlement don’t go to school at all, Mr. Webootsa said.

“Most of them will end up at the dumpsite, because they must earn a living somehow. In fact, child prostitution and child marriage are so common here,” he said.

Where available, urban data reveal wide disparities in children’s rates of survival and nutritional status, the result of unequal access to services.  Yet even this information is often hard to find. Further data and analysis are needed to address the needs of these impoverished and excluded urban children.

Mr. Webootsa is advocating for the government to allocate more resources for children in informal settlements. UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012’ also calls on governments to direct resources and services to these children, and to help understand the scale of urban poverty so officials and partner organizations can better address children’s needs.



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