Home / Version française / Versión en español / Copyright


Programmes that empower women lead to improvements in children’s lives.



















Fundamental changes

ECD is the necessary first step to making life better for children but, in itself, it is not enough. Fundamental changes are in order, and certain traditions that reinforce the unacceptable status quo must be challenged and put to rest, if the rights and best interests of the child are to be advanced.

The ‘non-personhood’ of the youngest. Two billion of the world’s 6 billion people live in constant risk of having their needs overlooked, their opinions discounted, their rights abused or their well-being threatened, simply because they are under 18 years of age. Without voice or vote, children and adolescents have few ways to influence the world outside their families. As a result, adults rarely take notice that one third of the world’s population is treated this way regularly, quietly, pervasively and destructively. Among these ‘non-persons’ are infants and babies, the youngest and the most ignored of all.

In 33 countries of the world, more than half of the children are not even registered at birth. Even in countries with birth registration, children of ethnic minorities and children born with disabilities are often ignored. One third of all births each year, some 40 million babies, are not registered. For all intents and purposes, these children are non-persons in the eyes of the State, unrecorded for planning purposes and invisible when policy and budget decisions are being made.

Meanwhile, in the most dysfunctional homes, young children are often silent witnesses to violence and abuse or are themselves victims without recourse. But even in stable environments, myths and misperceptions of an adult-centric world about what children can see, hear or understand limit a child’s development.

In ways that are the norm, villages and cities are built around politically favoured projects, such as subsidized, high-cost urban water systems for wealthy neighbourhoods or specialist medical facilities, with monies that could and should have been spent on the needs of children. Laws are passed and public policies implemented without accounting for their effect on the lives of children. National measures of economic, social and human development are taken, monitored and ranked without close scrutiny of the status of child development.

All this despite the nearly universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the world’s commitments to children. The disconnect between the vision of this landmark treaty and the discrimination that is the reality of children’s lives must be set right if any real progress in human affairs is to be made.

The relative powerlessness of women. Women’s relative powerlessness in society makes them more likely to be infected with HIV, more vulnerable to violence and abuse in their homes and communities and easier targets in armed conflicts. It also plays a major role in how children are cared for within their homes, in who makes the decisions about them and how they are provided for when policies are drafted, laws made and budgets constructed.

Resource allocation at the family level forces the covert issue of gender discrimination out into the open. Studies in both industrialized and developing countries show that mothers put more of their incomes into their households and into meeting children’s needs than do fathers.64 Research in Kenya and Malawi found a strongly positive correlation between women’s control of their income and a household’s caloric intake.65 In many countries, programmes that empower women lead to improvements in children’s lives: In the Chicontepec project for indigenous girls and women in Mexico, for example, women’s groups that came together around a water project eventually worked for their families’ rights to food, health, education and improvements in their homes and incomes.

One could expect that, given the opportunity, women would work diligently to move governments to support basic social services for children and families. But gender discrimination keeps women away from policy-making and the decisions that define the conditions of their lives, such as allocating budgets for basic social services and setting educational policies that promote gender equality. It is a pervasive gender bias that keeps women out of the public sphere and relegates them to the private struggles — of maintaining families, caring for children and sustaining themselves. These struggles mark the days and nights of Priyanthi and Febronia and the millions like them throughout the world. No matter how hard they try to do otherwise or how deeply they care for their children, women, with relatively little power over their own lives, are likely to pass on their poverty to their daughters and sons.

Gender discrimination is one of the first lessons in life and one that is repeated almost incessantly within the family, in schools and in communities until it seems like natural law. It can and must be unlearned in these same arenas as insistently as it is taught and replaced by an environment in which boys and girls are equally valued, equally cared for and equally educated, if a country is to have any chance of sustaining the development of its people and fulfilling the rights of all its citizens.

Acceptance of weak leadership and blurred accountability. The distance from poor rural communities and urban slums to the seats of power is huge. With rare exceptions, the interests of the officials and government decision makers are focused far from those of babies and families in their own countries. And the distance is still farther when the children are in another country and another region of the globe.

In the majority of countries in the world, strong leadership on matters related to how a child survives, grows and develops couldn’t be less visible. The voices of power are uncharacteristically silent about the lives of women and families, and the great divide between public affairs and private matters is rarely bridged. Now the well-being of children and adolescents must become the measure of a country’s progress and a leader’s accomplishments.

Country profile: Maldives

Country profile: Jordan

Panel 8. Child Survival and the Agency of Women by Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (United Kingdom), and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences


  Previous | Next