Failing children

Cities are failing children, UNICEF warns in ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World.’ The annual report on the issues and situations that children face, which was launched on Tuesday last, noted that globally, there are more urban children than ever before and that the overwhelmed cities in many cases prove to be dangerous, especially for poor children.

Sixteen years ago, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had pointed to the growing urban shift in its annual State of the World’s Population report, noting that as more rural dwellers sought the ‘better life’ they felt was possible in cities, the dynamics would change. There would be need for planning to cater for the deluge of new city residents; housing, always a difficulty in cities, would be overburdened and water and sewerage facilities overtaxed. The report, titled ‘Changing Places: Population, Develop-ment and the Urban Future,’ examined how cities, particularly in developing countries, were expanding population-wise and cautioned that the impending challenges could be daunting. Planning would be needed, it said, to ensure adequate infrastructure, housing, employment and social services, given that urban poverty was already extremely high.

Sixteen years would have been enough time to expand social services and improve infrastructure had any heed been paid to the UNFPA’s predictions. In fact, in 16 years, new cities could have been built.

Instead, today, UNICEF is left to bemoan the plight of many urban children. It notes that more than a billion children in the world now live in cities and towns and while for some there are the distinct advantages of access to the best educational, medical and recreational facilities, the poorest who are in the majority, are privileged only to live in the vicinity of these.

Poor urban children are denied such essentials as electricity, clean water and health care; are forced into dangerous and exploitative work instead of being able to attend school; face the constant threat of eviction, since their parents are squatters; and are acutely vulnerable to abuse, disease and disaster because of their cramped living conditions.

In Georgetown, where environmental disaster constantly hovers on account of the garbage problems, stagnant drains, failing sewerage system and uncertain water supply, the risk to children living in areas such as Tiger Bay and the various squatter shacks on the embankment of trenches in Ruimveldt and other areas cannot be overemphasized. There are so-called landlords too, in South Georgetown slum areas, charging exorbitant rents for tiny one-room hovels with no water or electricity, and where families of five and more live practically on top of each other.

What is unfortunate is that many families in Guyana, who exchange their rural existence for an urban one, do so in pursuit of a better life. Rural residents constantly complain that much of what they require in order to live comfortable lives remains centred in the city. Parents want their children to have access to ‘good schools’ and modern medical facilities. Or they move because there are no jobs available in the rural areas where they live. In addition, farming, which for many ‘ruralites’ was a means of earning their daily bread, has now become an expensive and unsure undertaking. Annual flooding in former arable areas has drowned and washed away crop after crop, frustrating farmers and putting them seriously out of pocket. Farmers’ children, in many cases, have very little incentive to follow in their parents’ footsteps and opt instead to take the urban trek only to find out that not only is the grass not greener, there is very little of it.

‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ report urges that action be taken to “understand the scale and nature of poverty and exclusion affecting children in urban areas” and identify and remove the barriers to inclusion. Like the UNFPA did 16 years ago, it calls for urban planning, infrastructure development, service delivery and broader efforts to reduce poverty and inequality to meet the particular needs and priorities of children. It also recommends partnerships between government and the urban poor, especially children and young people, among other things, for fairer, more nurturing cities and societies for all people – starting with children.

While Georgetown needs a great deal of effort to halt its own failure, whoever eventually handles the gargantuan task of fixing this city, should also take these recommendations on board.

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