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UNICEF released The State of the World’s Children 2012 last week, reporting on the serious risks children and pregnant women face in our rapidly urbanizing world. While cities historically offer greater access to infrastructure like schools, clinics, and other basic services, the report notes that urban growth rates are outpacing the infrastructure development needed to provide for city residents.
There are problems, too, with data reporting on poor urban communities: disparities that plague poor urban communities are masked by data that examines all city residents together, rather than the needs of communities within urban areas that vary by socio-economic status. For example, it can be 50 times more expensive to gain access to water in poor parts of a city than in wealthier areas, due to residents having to purchase from privatized groups rather than having direct connection to a water supply in their home. UNICEF stresses the need for a greater focus on equity, putting children at the center of urban planning initiatives, as well as the need for more accurate data to locate the disparities that exist among children in urban areas.
UNICEF also highlights the health needs of pregnant women in the world’s cities. Many poor urban women lack access to well-equipped, skilled birth attendants, leading to disparities in maternal death rates and obstetric fistula rates between poor and wealthy city dwellers. Demographic and Health Survey data from 35 countries suggest that urban mothers are less likely to breastfeed their children, posing serious risks for infants’ nutritional health. The health disparities facing children and pregnant women outlined in the UNICEF report have far-reaching consequences. As Anthony Lake states, “Excluding these children in slums not only robs them of the chance to reach their full potential; it robs their societies of the economic benefits of having a well-educated, healthy urban population.”
Lake’s comments echo the statements he made at the opening session of Adolescent Rights: What Progress, a conference on adolescents’ rights held at Harvard in December. In discussion with economist and Harvard professor Amartya Sen, Lake noted, “A pro-equity approach is not only right in principle, it’s right in practice as well.” Speaking to the price tag that comes with such an approach, he said, “We can show them [governments] that doing the right thing is also the most cost-effective thing.”
Sen recently completed a three-year project with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights that addressed the challenges of quantifying the social and economic costs incurred when societies fail to address children’s needs.
More on The State of the World’s Children 2012:
UNICEF Press Centre, “Cities are failing children, UNICEF warns” [press release]
– Judith Fitzpatrick and Jessica Moore-Kaplan