issue 164 - October 1986
Photo: Claude Sauvageot
Children's rights... and wrongs
All babies are born equal. but some are more equal than others.
A quarter of the deaths in the world this year will be of children not
yet five years old, two thirds of them still infants. And 97% of those
deaths will occur in the poor world - 27% in India alone.1
Discrimination by wealth begins even before birth. Poor, undernourished mothers are more likely to give birth to undernourished babies - and small, weak babies are more susceptible to illness and death.
Low birthweight babies are 4 - 6 times more susceptible to physical and mental handicap, and 8 - 10 times more likely to die in the first year of life.2
More then 23 million babies a year are born weighing less than 2,500 grammes (approx. 5.5 pounds); 90% of these are born in the developing world. where one child in four is also seriously undernourished.
But even the richest county's babies are not safe form the effects of poverty. If a baby is born into a family kept poor by race or class discrimination, the baby's chances of survival shrink.
Sex discrimination kills, too. If a baby is not just poor and black, but a girl, then her chances of survival dwindle further. Girl babies are biologically stronger than boys, so at birth and earliest infancy, girls' death rates are often lower than boys' But then discrimination in favour of boys takes over, and the girls' death rate begins to surpass the boys'.
Good news - many countries that considered girls' education a waste of time have changed their minds. Since the 1960s, there has been a huge increase in government spending on getting girls into school.
At primary school level, the boy-girl gap has been narrowing rapidly. But at secondary level, the gap remains wide. In 76 countries, less than half the eligible girls are enrolled in secondary school. And even when they do enrol, girls are the first to drop out when help is needed at home.1 Despite the vigorous effort to enrol girls, in Saudi Arabia, only 30% of pupils at secondary schools are girls. And in North Yemen, only 21% are.1
Educating girls extends a girls options in life. And it is has another, unexpected benefit: it will dramatically improve the survival chances of any babies she decides to have.2
A child's best guarantee for survival is a confident, self-respecting mother. And education can pave the way to maternal confidence.2
'The single most important correlate of child survival is not, as might be expected, the family's wealth or the availability of medical facilities, but the mother's educational level.'
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, 1984
Around 50 hours a week - that's how long parents (usually mothers) spend on looking after a pre-school child each week in the UK: 7 hours each day, 7 days a week.3
This estimate does not include times spent on fun, like going swimming; general tasks, like shopping for the rest of the family; being on medical alert 24 hours a day - even when the child sleeps.
The mothers surveyed were asked:
If mothers are this important to the welfare of children, it should be obvious that their physical and mental well-being should be safeguarded.
But the reality is different. Fatigue is the commonest chronic health problem form women - not surprisingly. In the poor world, women produce at least 50% of the food as well as being responsible for all the domestic tasks. Childbearing adds a third workload; by the age of 30, a woman has often spent 80% of her adult life pregnant or breastfeeding.2
Hardwork, childbearing and undernourishment lead to anaemia. In poor countries, half of all women, and two-thirds of pregnant women, are anaemic.1
The value of women's unpaid labour in industrialised countries is estimated as 25 - 40 % of GNP. In the world as a whole, it is estimated as one-third - or $4,000,000,000,000 - of the world's economic product.1