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The effects of poverty on early childhood

When poverty engulfs a family, the youngest are the most affected and most vulnerable — their rights to survival, growth and development at risk. A child born today in the developing world has a 4 out of 10 chance of living in extreme poverty.21 This poverty defines every aspect of the child’s existence, from malnutrition, lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation, to life expectancy. It is the main underlying cause of millions of preventable deaths and the reason why children are malnourished, miss out on school or are abused and exploited. And it is at the core of a pervasive violation of children’s rights.

Poor and uneducated parents lack the information needed to provide optimum care for their children, increasing the risks of childhood illness and childhood mortality. Infants born to mothers with no formal education are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than are babies born to mothers with post-primary school education.22

For children under two years, malnutrition, as both a consequence and a cause of poverty, has a particularly profound effect. It causes permanent and irreversible damage on the body and mind of the young boy or girl. Infants who are poor and malnourished are more likely to contract respiratory infections, diarrhoea, measles and other preventable diseases and less likely to receive needed health care. In at least one district of Tanzania today, 80 per cent of the children who die before the age of five die at home without ever going to a hospital.23

But poverty does not exist solely in the developing world. Pockets of impoverishment exist throughout the industrialized world as well. About 3 million people in 15 countries of the European Union lack permanent housing.24 In the United States, about 17 per cent of all children are growing up in households struggling to meet basic nutritional needs.25 Throughout the industrialized world, mothers and fathers seek services for their children.

Equal to the profound impact of poverty on a young child’s right to survival and physical well-being are poverty’s effects on the child’s rights to psychological, emotional and spiritual development. In both developing and industrialized countries, poverty and family dysfunction go hand in hand, with the youngest children suffering the loss of the close nurturance, stimulation and care that are necessary for healthy development.26

Poverty’s cycle does not stop in one lifetime. A girl born to poverty is more likely to marry early and have a child while still an adolescent. A malnourished girl becomes a malnourished mother, who will give birth to an underweight baby. And, like their parents, poor children are likely to transmit their poverty to the next generation.

Lacking a single indicator, poverty is not always easy to quantify. Simply recognizing income poverty does not acknowledge poverty’s non-measurable aspects, such as discrimination, social exclusion or deprivation of dignity. For example, discrimination compounds the effects of poverty on the Roma population throughout Europe. Life expectancy of the Roma is the lowest of any group in Europe. The 1991 infant mortality rate for Roma in the former Czechoslovakia was more than double the rate for the rest of the population.27

The rights of children are violated every day, as poverty causes millions of the world’s young citizens to go without teachers, medicines, latrines and, in some cases, food and clean water. As it causes millions more to be sold into bondage to pay off family debts or abandoned to institutions because a family is without resources. And causes others to be left on doorsteps in urban slums or starved and neglected, hidden from view in city apartments.

Country profile: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Country profile: Malawi


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