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At risk: 1,000,000,000 of the world's children
One billion children are at risk today from war, poverty and hunger, failed by the world's governments
By Stephen Khan

10 December 2004

They are a billion strong. Diseased, malnourished, uneducated, they are a people on the run from wars that take the lives of their brothers and sisters. And they are all children - half the children on earth today.

In shocking revelations yesterday, the grim reality of daily life for the world's innocent generation was laid bare. More than one billion children are now being denied the healthy and protected upbringing promised by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. For them - the forgotten masses - violence, poverty and Aids are all that the year's end will bring. In Darfur in Sudan, wretched shivering souls wait for their parents in refugee camps. In Haiti, they huddle in shelters, having lost homes and parents to floods. In Iraq, they trample through the rubble of bombed-out homes.

More than one in six children is severely hungry. One in seven has no access to health care.

Despite debt reduction schemes and the vast sums of cash donated by individuals around the world, one factor keeps more than a billion children in a state of poverty. And that factor is war - usually over natural resources such as diamonds, oil and coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones, which are exported to the West.

As two reports showed yesterday, perhaps the most chilling statistic of all is the number of young lives snatched by conflict. Since 1990, 3.6 million people have been killed on the front line in wars around the word - almost half of them were children.

Survival, though, is merely the start of further great struggles to reach maturity. A billion continue to be "denied a childhood" - 20 million are forced from homes and communities by fighting. The world's political leaders are failing them, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef). Governments are not delivering on long-held promises to protect their rights.

At least 640 million children do not have adequate shelter, while 140 million have never been to school. Safe water is something that 400 million children are denied while 500 million live without basic sanitation. And 90 million starved.

From the heart of Africa, where conflict last year tore through nation after nation, to Latin America, where hurricanes uprooted families, and Asia, where floods and landslides swept whole towns away, it is clear that one group of people pays more than any other - the young and defenceless.

Yet it needn't be that way. "What we are saying in this report is that choices made by political leaders in many cases are very often negative when it comes to children," the executive director of Unicef, Carol Bellamy, told reporters in London at the launch of The State of The World's Children.

Despite signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, many governments are failing to fulfil its principles, the report claims. The convention commits signatories to provide a healthy, protected and decent childhood for every person born.

Yet last year, 30,000 under-fives died preventable deaths. And while child mortality rates fell by a fifth over the decade, more than 10 million children perished in 2003.

The shadow of Aids lingers long. Half a million children under 15 died of the disease last year and 2.1 million children across the world live with HIV. Fifteen million children have lost a parent to Aids - 80 per cent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Unicef says the solution is clear. Goals set by the UN in 2000 to lift poverty across the globe could be achieved at a cost of 52bn. Last year the world's nations spent 712bn on weapons. And it is those guns, mortars, mines and shells that maintain the status quo of suffering.

While more than 1.5 million children died in the front line of combat zones in the years since 1990, the actual number of deaths indirectly caused by war is much, much higher. The true global figure is perhaps impossible to gauge.

Another survey into one of the world's most battle-scarred regions was released yesterday and it provides an astonishing picture of death and destruction wreaked by the machines of death. With the security situation once again rapidly deteriorating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Rescue Committee issued a mortality survey which revealed that six years of bloody conflict in the country have claimed 3.8 million lives.

Teams of physicians and epidemiologists found that between January 2003 and April 2004, more than 1,000 people a day died in excess of normal mortality rates. Of nearly 500,000 additional deaths, half were children.

Tony Blair, who has described Africa as a scar on the conscience of the world, has pledged that Britain will take the lead on ending poverty, debt and war on that continent.

His Commission on Africa is about to launch a report setting out a strategy. The challenge before him is great. For this is the continent that remains the ultimate example of international failure.

 

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