Unicef Logo and the text: Children Under Threat. The State of The World's Children 2005.

Paula Bronstein

Press Release

The State of the World’s Children 2005 focuses on how poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS threaten the ideal of childhood as a time for children to grow and develop to their full potential.

Childhood is a special time in each individual’s life – a time when they should be encouraged to learn and play by their family and an extended community of caring adults – and an essential element in the development of healthy and productive future generations. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, offers a new definition of childhood based on human rights. It heralded significant advances in the fulfilment of children’s rights to survival, health and education through the provision of essential goods and services, and a growing recognition of the need to create a protective environment to shield children from exploitation, abuse and violence.

However, in several regions and countries, some of these gains are in danger of reversal as a result of poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS. The rights of over 1 billion children are violated because they are denied of one or more of the basic services required to survive, grow and develop. Millions of children are growing up in families and communities torn apart by armed conflict. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS has led to increasing child mortality rates, dramatic reductions in life expectancy and millions of orphans.

These are not the only factors that undermine childhood, but they are certainly among the most significant, with profoundly damaging effects on a child’s chances of survival and development. The harm they cause lingers well beyond the years of childhood, increasing the likelihood that the next generation will be affected by the same threats and endangering the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the aims of ‘A World Fit for Children’.

Children living in poverty

Children living in poverty are deprived of their rights to survival, health and nutrition, education, participation, and protection from harm, exploitation and discrimination. Millions of children are severely deprived of nutrition, water, sanitation facilities, access to basic health-care services, shelter, education and information. Gender discrimination is both a visible outcome and an underlying factor of severe deprivation. Even in countries where absolute deprivation is low, relative deprivation in terms of family income and wealth implies unequal opportunities for children.

Children whose rights to safety and dignity are denied are also impoverished. Each year, tens of millions of children are the victims of exploitation, violence and abuse, which rob them of their childhood, preventing them from achieving anything close to their full potential.

The many dimensions of poverty mean that reducing it requires an integrated, multifaceted approach:

  • Define and measure child poverty. Accept that child poverty cannot be understood only in terms of family income. Responses to it should be based on how children experience poverty.

  • Ensure that poverty-reduction strategies prioritize actions to protect childhood. Poverty-reduction strategies should focus strongly on fulfilling children’s rights, addressing key issues of deprivation and protection for children and their families.

  • Expand basic social and educational services and ensure universal access. Countries successful in improving access to basic health care and education for children, in both the developing world and the more affluent countries, are ready to spend more on social services, even in times of economic or financial crisis.

  • Set targets and mobilize stakeholders. All stakeholders must be engaged to meet development targets. Presently, the world is falling behind on reaching the Millennium Development Goals and in fulfilling the aims of ‘A World Fit for Children’, which address many of the dimensions of child poverty.

  • Promote the family. Families form the first line of defence for children: the further away children are from their families, the more vulnerable they are to violence, exploitation, poverty and abuse.

  • Eliminate gender discrimination by pursuing labour market and fiscal policies that address economic insecurity among women. Empowering women is an effective strategy to combat child poverty.

  • Encourage local solutions and community participation. Developing countries successful in reducing poverty are increasingly promoting community participation. Children should be encouraged to participate in debates that focus on ways of reducing poverty.

Children caught up in conflict

Children are always among the first affected by armed conflict. Even if they are not killed or injured, they can be orphaned, abducted or left with psychological and psychosocial distress from direct exposure to violence, dislocation, poverty or the loss of loved ones. Those who survive often find themselves enveloped in a battle of a different kind – against disease, inadequate shelter, a lack of basic services and poor nutrition. Schools can also become caught up in violence, often with tragic consequences. Children may be forcibly recruited into combat and servitude, experience sexual violence or exploitation, or be exposed to explosive remnants of war that kill and maim thousands each year. Girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, abuse, exploitation and stigmatization during and after conflict situations. Many girls
also experience war on the front lines.

To protect children from armed conflict, a number of actions must be pursued:

  • Put children first, before and during conflict.
    Countries must consider the impact on children
    before engaging in conflict or imposing sanctions, and must allow humanitarian
    agencies the scope to protect children and women during conflict.

  • End the recruitment of child soldiers. Adoption and application of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of
    children in armed conflict must be stepped up.

  • Strengthen the protective environment for children at every level. Encourage countries to ratify and apply – without reservation – treaties designed to protect children from the pernicious effects of conflict.

  • Eradicate the culture of impunity and strengthen accountability. Perpetrators of genocide, war crimes – including the conscription of children under 15 – and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice.

  • Improve monitoring and reporting on child rights violations during conflict.

  • Expand demobilization and mine-awareness campaigns. The sensitive reintegration into civil society of child combatants through a comprehensive support programme is vital. Greater attention must be paid to the reintegration of girl combatants. Mine-risk education should be included in school syllabuses and in public health programmes.

  • Restart education for children caught up in armed conflict as soon as possible
    as a way to inject stability and normalcy into their lives.
The impact of HIV/AIDS on children

HIV/AIDS is tearing at the very fabric of childhood. Around 15 million children under the age of 18 had been orphaned by the pandemic by the end of 2003. Eight out of 10 of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. Unless action is taken, swiftly and decisively, to stem the tidal wave of infection and loss, it is estimated that by 2010 over 18 million African children will have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

The loss of a parent implies more than just the disappearance of a caregiver. It pervades every aspect of a child’s life: their emotional well-being, physical security, mental development and overall health. It deprives them of the right to live in a family environment. It means that part of the safety net against violence, abuse, exploitation, stigmatization and discrimination is lost, often further isolating children from others at a time when they need as much care and support as possible. In the most extreme cases, children can find themselves living on the streets, utterly devoid of family support.

A child’s right to an education is often jeopardized when caregivers become sick or die, since it propels children out of the classroom and into the adult roles of caring and providing for their families. The right to rest, play and recreation is also lost. As HIV/AIDS often exacerbates poverty – from the first time adults fall sick they may not be able to work – it may force children to engage in hazardous labour and increases the risk of exploitation.

Respecting the rights of children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS must be an international priority over the next two decades. This means that action must be taken on several fronts:

  • Limit the spread of HIV/AIDS through forthright national leadership, widespread public awareness and intensive prevention efforts.

  • Dedicate funds to support programmes for orphans and vulnerable children, which currently receive only a small proportion of overall HIV/AIDS funding.

  • Prolong the lives of parents and provide economic, psychosocial and other support.

  • Mobilize and support community-based responses to provide both immediate and long-term support to vulnerable households.

  • Ensure access to essential services, including education, health care and birth registration, to orphaned and other vulnerable children.
A childhood for every child

For hundreds of millions of children, the promise of childhood laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child already appears broken. They do not inherit their right to a childhood of love, care and protection in a family environment, encouraged to reach their full potential. When they become parents, their own children are at risk of having their rights denied as the threats to childhood – particularly poverty, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS – replicate themselves from one generation to the next.

It does not have to be this way. We have an unparalleled opportunity to fulfil the rights of children. The intent is there, as evidenced by the near-universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the endorsement of other international and national instruments related to children’s rights and well-being. The resources – knowledge, money, technology, strategies and people – are available in abundance. The targets are clear: Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the broad aims of ‘A World Fit for Children’ would do much to make the world a better place for children.

UNICEF believes that the rights of all children everywhere
can be fulfilled, if only the world demonstrates the
will to enact them by:

  • Reaffirming and recommitting to their moral and legal responsibilities to children.

  • Applying a human rights-based approach to social and economic development. Placing rights at the heart of human development strategies allows countries to prioritize goods and services essential for children, and to construct a protective environment.

  • Adopting socially responsible policies, keeping children specifically in mind. Pursuing measures with children specifically in mind is the most effective route to reduce poverty and lower HIV prevalence. A key starting point would be to abolish school fees, which will encourage poor families to enrol their
    children in school.

  • Investing additional funds in children, through both increased official development assistance and improvements in the quality of national public finances. Childhood is the foundation of the world’s future. Many are already contributing, at all levels and in innovative ways, to ensuring that every child enjoys their right to a childhood. Many more must follow their example.

  • Investing additional funds in children, through both increased official development assistance and improvements in the quality of national public finances.

Childhood is the foundation of the world’s future. Many are already contributing, at all levels and in innovative ways, to ensuring that every child enjoys their right to a childhood. Many more must follow their example.

Also in this section

Picture of a child


A child carrying water

The Convention on the Rights of the Child [Web]

A World Fit for Children [PDF]

Human rights for children and women: How UNICEF helps make them a reality [PDF]

Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child -
Fully Revised Edition

Building a World Fit for Children [PDF]

We the children [PDF]

“Abandoned and destitute…children devoid of all the basic necessities in life are taken advantage of... they are exploited at the hands of people in numerous ways leaving them scared, helpless and vulnerable.
girl, 19, UAE

Log on to www.unicef.org/voy

Approximate lowest possible cost of generic antiretroviral therapy for one year: $300

Per capita annual income in Mozambique: $210

Per cent of people in developing countries who need antiretroviral therapy but do not have access to it: 93
© UNICEF 2004