Progress towards Children’s Well-being in South Asian Countries

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, September 29th, 2016


 

(Improving Children’s Lives, Transforming the Future: 25 years of Child Rights in South Asia, Published by UNICEF, 2014, Pages: 81)

 

Since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989, the world has taken various initiatives for its children for doing everything to protect and promote their rights – to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the CRC, the UNICEF publication “Improving Children’s Lives, Transforming the Future: 25 years of Child Rights in South Asia” examines how the Convention has changed the lives of children over the last 25 years in the eight countries of South Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – one of the fastest growing regions in the world. Over the past quarter-century, South Asia has made impressive progress towards realizing child rights. But there is more to be done – millions of children are still unable to live in dignity, reach their full potential or make choices about their future. This book presents data on key aspects of child well-being – child protection, health, nutrition, education, sanitation and gender – highlighting proven innovations and suggesting policies to realize the rights of all children in South Asia. It argues that fulfilling children’s rights equitably is crucial to the region’s future.

 

The chapters of this book follow the life-cycle of the child from conception to marriage. They highlight areas where significant gaps still remain: gender, child protection, health, nutrition, education and sanitation. The book begins with the chapter ‘Sex Ratio’. In some societies in South Asia, parents prefer to have boy children. Despite attempts to prevent sex selection, the practice continues (particularly in India) and it leads to an imbalance in the natural sex ratio (roughly 1:1 in the human population), with men outnumbering women. This introductory chapter suggests that South Asian countries should work to address sex imbalance through ensuring strong political commitment in promoting zero tolerance towards gender-biased sex selection and giving girls and women better access to education, health, nutrition, protection and information.

 

The second chapter focuses on ‘Neonatal mortality and skilled birth attendants’.

 

There are more than a million neonatal deaths per year in the South Asian countries. The reasons for higher death rates in very young babies are complex, but some of the solutions are well understood and urgently needed. They include having sufficient numbers and training of skilled birth attendants, high quality delivery facilities, and regular follow-up during pregnancy and after birth. Chapter -3 examines the ‘Birth registration’. Birth registration is the first formal recognition by the state of a child’s existence. Being registered at birth also provides proof of a child’s age. This should (although it does not always) provide protection against child marriage, child labour, and under-age recruitment by armed forces or armed groups. Birth registration levels in South Asia have increased since 2000, but progress has been slow. Around 2010, 61 percent of children under the age of five in the region – or about 100 million children – did not have their births registered. The only countries recording significant improvements are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and the Maldives.

 

The next chapter focuses on ‘Nutrition’ which is the key to children’s survival and development. In South Asia, an estimated 38 percent of children under the age of five are stunted due to chronic nutrition deprivation. Research shows that there is a critical 1,000-day window of opportunity – from conception to the age of two – to prevent child stunting and break the intergenerational cycle of under-nutrition: once this window closes, for most children it closes for life. Chapter-5 sheds light on ‘Immunization’ – one of the most cost-effective, life-saving health interventions for children, with results being real and long-lasting. Some countries in South Asia have made significant improvements in immunization since 1990 – particularly Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – but coverage is still far too low in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. To improve immunization rates, and to achieve and sustain polio eradication, countries should consider targeting the most needy sub-national areas and tackling not just immunization and new vaccine introductions, but making wider efforts to improve nutrition, education, hygiene and sanitation, and to reduce poverty.

 

The sixth chapter focuses on ‘Education’ which is vital for unlock a better future for a child. Education is especially transformative for children who are poor, female and who live in remote areas. Already a quarter of a century has passed since 1990, when the international community pledged to provide education for all. Since then, most countries in South Asia have seen remarkable progress in expanding access to education – the biggest increases being in Bhutan and Nepal. However, there has also been a slight decrease in enrolment rates over the last decade in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where enrolment was near universal 10 years ago. There are still too many children in the region who are not in school. Evidence shows that 27 million children (aged 5-13) are out of school in just four countries – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. For children who manage to get to school, there are further challenges: completing the full eight to 10 years of basic education, and actual learning in the classroom. In South Asia, only 64 percent of children who enroll in Grade 1 reach the last grade of primary education. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that only a third of children in South Asia who have had at least four years of primary education meet minimum learning standards, a lower proportion than in any other region. This chapter provides some measures to end exclusion and the learning crisis in education, and to fulfill the right to education of every child in South Asia: i) prioritizing exclusion and the learning needs of out-of-school children; ii) expanding alternative learning pathways; iii) addressing the multiple barriers to schooling; and iv) investing in excluded children and under-performing schools.

 

The book concludes with the chapter ‘Child marriage’. Child marriage – the formal marriage or informal union involving a girl or boy under the age of 18 years – is a human-rights violation and a key area for action. Almost half of all girls in South Asia (46 percent) marry before the age of 18. The highest rate of child marriage is in Bangladesh (where two out of every three girls marry before age 18), followed by India, Nepal and Afghanistan. Four percent of adolescent boys and 29 percent of adolescent girls (aged 15-19) are currently married or in union in South Asia. These figures confirm that child marriage is rooted in gender norms and in expectations about the value and roles of girls. Fighting child marriage calls for: i) Enhancing equal access to good quality primary and secondary education, to eliminate gender gaps in schooling; and ii) Mobilizing, educating and raising awareness among parents, community members, village elders and religious leaders to address discriminatory gender norms and create new positive norms and opportunities for girls.

 

This well-documented UNICEF publication calls on all of us to do more for the children and adolescents of South Asia. Most importantly, it calls on governments to transform the future by prioritizing child rights and investing in the well-being of all children.

 

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

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