Children under attack from AIDS, war, poverty

A toddler is weighed in a sling-scale by a heath worker from the UNICEF-assisted Martissant Community Clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in March 2004.
A toddler is weighed in a sling-scale by a heath worker from the UNICEF-assisted Martissant Community Clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in March 2004. Roger Lemoyne / UNICEF
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More than 1 billion children are suffering from the deprivations of HIV/ AIDS, poverty and war, which threatens to debilitate the future of entire nations, according to a UNICEF report on “The State of the World’s Children” for the year 2005 released on Thursday. 

“Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in a statement released ahead of the launch of the report at the London School of Economics. “Poverty doesn’t come from nowhere; war doesn’t come emerge from nothing; AIDS doesn’t spread by choice of its own. These are our choices.”

In ideal circumstances, childhood is the relatively short window within which society can provide a certain quality of life to build hope for a successful future. But as the report argues, with over half the world’s children crippled by the toxic cocktail of HIV/AIDS, poverty and war, the world is failing to deliver on the promise of a happy childhood.

The report entitled “Childhood Under Threat” is a call to action for the world to harness whatever means necessary to do better for the future of our children.

Scourge of HIV/ AIDS
Perhaps the most devastating attack on children and childhood is coming from the scourge of HIV/AIDS and the huge spike in the number of children orphaned by AIDS.

In just two years, 2001-2003, the number of children who had lost one or both parents due to AIDS rose from 11.5 million to 15 million, according to the report. Eight out of ten of the children who have been orphaned due to AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In many ways Botswana, with any estimated 37 percent of the population infected with HIV/ AIDS,  is at the epicenter of the crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

For a small country with a population of only 1.5 million, an estimated 10-15 percent of the children under the age of 18 are orphans, and at the end of 2003 the government estimated that 37.4 percent of pregnant women receiving pre-natal care were HIV positive.

According to Gordon Jonathan Lewis, the UNICEF representative in Botswana, the government there has been extremely proactive in working to stem the tide of infections and in helping to take care of the children that have been left behind, but there are still tremendous challenges ahead.

He noted that numbers alone can’t quantify suffering through the loss of a parent from a long-term debilitating disease – particularly one still seen largely as taboo by society - and its long-term effect on a child’s psyche and physical well being.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that orphans have the same opportunities as any other child growing up in Botswana,” Lewis said. “The government recognizes that it has a moral obligation that to the people of its country.”

While children are forced to care for an ill parent, they are less likely to go to school. As the family suffers from financial pressure they are more likely to be forced into the worst forms of child labor, from commercial sex work, to commercial agriculture, to working on the street as street vendors, the report noted.

Out of an estimated 80,000 orphans in Botswana, 43,000 have registered with the government which provides them with a food basket other essentials like toiletries, blankets, and clothing once a month and makes sure that they are enrolled in school. Lewis explained that the government has also taken proactive steps to provide “psycho-social” help for psychological problems the children suffer from as a result of watching a parent die.

Botswana is also the first country to establish a completely free anti-retroviral therapy and treatment program in sub-Saharan Africa and the first country to set-up a “Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV” program as well.

“The money is there, the political leadership is there, [international] partnerships are there — there is no reason we can’t beat this,” Lewis said.  “What we now need is a sea-change in attitude and behavior to make this thing turn around.”

'Poverty trap'
Working in conjunction with researchers at the London School of Economics and Bristol University, the UNICEF report also noted that children experience poverty differently than adults and that traditional measurements such as "living on a dollar a day" do not adequately capture how poverty effects children.

Instead, the UNICEF report identifies seven basic “deprivations” for more than 1 billion children in the developing world -- inadequate shelter, no access to sanitation, no access to safe water, lack of access to information via TV, radio, or newspapers, no access to health care services, limited access to schools, and food deprivation.

Ethiopia, arguably the most impoverished nation in the world, seems to encapsulate the “deprivations” laid out in the UNICEF report.

Most Americans probably associate Ethiopia with the famine of the 1980s and more or less assume life is bad there, but have no concept of how utterly impoverished the vast nation of 67 million is and how they are still feeling the after-effects of that natural disaster.

“You think [famine] it is a temporary thing that hits a country in one year and goes away, but that's not the case,” said Bjorn Ljungqvist, the UNICEF representative there. He explained that when there is a famine, a country may get an onslaught of food aid, but that is “not the kind of systematic support the country needs.”

Ethiopia has an estimated per capita income of $100 a year, only 20 percent of the population has adequate access to clean water, and only nine percent of women receive any kind of medical help when delivering babies.

Ljungqvist described the problems in Ethiopia as a “poverty trap,” and said that in terms of terms of “health, diseases — in almost all stakes — Ethiopia is among the worst in the world.”

“In these meager resources, the first victim is childhood,” Ljungqvist said.

Toll of war on children
Furthermore, UNICEF reported that political strife and poor governance leading to armed conflict have taken a serious toll on children.

Nearly half of the 3.6 million people killed in war since 1990 have been children. One particularly disturbing fact cited in the report was that 55 out of 59 armed conflicts that took place between 1990 and 2003 involved war within, rather than between, countries.

The physical impact of death and destruction in war time is compounded for children that are forced to become child soldiers or are the victims of sexual violence as a result of conflict.

Furthermore, the systems that are in place to create safety and security break down in wartime. From law enforcement institutions, schools and health facilities, to families and communities – the structure and safety nets of peacetime break down and have a lasting effect on childhood.

Ethiopia, for example, has been in a relative state of peace since they ended a border war with Eritrea in 2000, yet according to Ljungqvist, the UNICEF representative, the aftereffects of war are still very much reverberating. From the large numbers of child orphans to landmines that have not gone away, Ethiopia is still very much feeling the severe after effects of war there.