SDGs to face challenge of 750 million child marriages by 2030

Ashok Kumar/OneWorld South Asia

Making the right choices without any further delay is the only way to arrest the fate of millions of children falling in the vicious trap of poverty, child marriage and pre mature deaths, says a report released by UNICEF in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Based on current trends, 69 million children under five will die from mostly preventable causes. The report underlines that about 167 million children will live in poverty, and 750 million women will have been married as children by 2030, the target date for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The report cautions that the unhealthy trend for children could not be reversed unless the world focuses more on the plight of its most underprivileged children.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake calls for investment in children. “We have a choice: Invest in these children now or allow our world to become still more unequal and divided. Denying hundreds of millions of children a fair chance in life does more than threaten their futures – by fueling intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, it imperils the future of their societies,” he cautioned.

The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF’s annual report, draws a grim picture of what is in store for the world’s poorest children if governments, donors, businesses and international organizations do not accelerate efforts to address their needs.

Acknowledging education to be one of the key players in promoting equity, the focus of the report launch in India was on education. Releasing the report, Louis-Georges Arsenault, Representative, UNICEF India, said equality in education cannot be achieved without an inclusive approach.

Regretting that development does not reach the most disadvantaged, Arsenault said that education is a continuum and the system must support children. “There are long-term consequences, particularly for the most marginalised and disadvantaged children, when they enter school without a quality preschool education. Gaps between disadvantaged children and other children become harder to bridge at later points in their education.”

Dr S C Khuntia, Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development said that education is a great equaliser. Emphasising that preschool education makes children better geared, he added that the government is developing a child tracking system for ensuring better attendance.

India has much to celebrate in the area of education, particularly in ensuring children’s access to school, through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and implementation of the Right to Education Act. This is reflected in the near-universal enrolment in primary education and the steady decrease in numbers of out-of-school children.

As a result, the number of out-of-school children between 6 to 13 years has declined from approximately 8 million in 2009 to 6 million in 2014. Yet challenges remain in India. Out of the 74 million children between 3-6 years, about 20 million were not attending any preschool education in 2014 (census 2011), and it is the children from the poorest families and marginalised communities who are often left behind.

Dr Rajesh Kumar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Development, talked about the Indian government’s ambitious plan of tracking 105 million children who are beneficiaries of ICDS.

Professor Shyam Menon, Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University, Delhi, appreciated the report for being pointed in its findings. Terming India as incredible in terms of its inequalities across gender, caste and communities, Menon highlighted the need for making better choices.

The report points to evidence that investing in the most vulnerable children can yield immediate and long-term benefits. Globally, cash transfers, for example, have been shown to help children stay in school longer and advance to higher levels of education.

The report notes that significant progress has been made in saving children’s lives, getting children into school and lifting people out of poverty. Global under-five mortality rates have been more than halved since 1990. Boys and girls attend primary school in equal numbers in 129 countries, and the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide is almost half of what it was in the 1990s.

But this progress has been neither even nor fair, the report points out. The poorest children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday and to be chronically malnourished than the richest. Across much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, children born to mothers with no education are almost three times more likely to die before they are five than those born to mothers with a secondary education. And girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to marry as children than girls from the wealthiest households.

Although education plays a unique role in levelling the playing field for children, the number of children who do not attend school has increased since 2011, and a significant proportion of those who do go to school are not learning. Globally, about 124 million children today do not go to primary and lower-secondary school, and almost 2 in 5 who do finish primary school have not learned how to read, write or do simple arithmetic.

According to the report, on average, each additional year of education a child receives increases his or her adult earnings by about 10 per cent. And for each additional year of schooling completed, on average, by young adults in a country, a country’s poverty rates fall by 9 per cent.

Inequity is neither inevitable, nor insurmountable, the report argues. Better data on the most vulnerable children, integrated solutions to the challenges children face, innovative ways to address old problems, more equitable investment and increased involvement by communities – all these measures can help level the playing field for children.

Three parallel sessions were also held after the launch, involving children from the Nine is Mine campaign, youth activists from Youth Ki Awaaz and top CSR heads emphasising that everyone has a role to play to make sure that every child can have a fair start in life. The ‘Fair Start’ film, unveiled recently as part of a UNICEF India led social media campaign, was also screened during the launch. The film focuses on persisting inequities that children in India face, affecting their survival, growth and development.