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Children in urban contexts

Today, half of humanity lives in cities and it is forecasted that within two decades the percentage of urban dwellers will reach 60% of the world’s population. Approximately half of the world’s children live in urban areas, mostly in low and middle-income nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is commonly thought that urban children enjoy better living conditions than their peers in the countryside, since cities provide enhanced income opportunities and offer a wide range of services, such as health care, education, sanitation and drainage systems. At the same time, it is widely understood that overall statistics for cities often hide disparities and conditions of marginalization and poverty experienced by a large portion of children living in slums and poor neighbourhoods.


For many children living in cities worldwide the health risks are very high. Levels of pollution and contamination combined with inadequate drainage and sanitation systems exacerbate the incidence of diarrhoea and related illnesses, as well as of respiratory diseases, which are common causes of child death. On the other hand, health service coverage for poor children is often insufficient to respond to demand. Other types of buffers, like secure housing, caregiving facilities and accessibility of education opportunities, leave many gaps in low-income urban settlements. Traffic, noise, the risk of injuries and pollution do not enable children to experience stimulating outdoors environments. In some areas, permeating crime and violence constitute a major threat to children’s safety and freedom. Furthermore, to help their families, children commonly end up working on the streets being exposed to dangers and possibly to exploitation.


In industrialised countries, there is better and generally more equitable coverage of health, care and education services. However, crime, traffic and limited spaces are a threat to children’s safety and freedom to play and interact. A tendency to overprotect children has made its way in most rich societies and often little room is left for children to learn about their surroundings and establish autonomy and independence, which are ingredients of healthy development.


All these needs and gaps may be addressed through legal reforms, policies and programmes that prioritise children and involve them in decision making processes. A local system of governance engaged in the process of becoming a child friendly city strives to ensure the implementation of children’s rights and the fulfilment of children’s needs. In a CFC all children are taken into consideration through collection of disaggregated data and the most vulnerable ones are reached through relevant interventions which include policy and legal changes, budget allocations and initiatives to enhance service delivery. In a CFC children’s participation is a cross-cutting element.


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Children, climate change and CFC

The effects of climate change – including extreme variations in temperatures, increased likeliness of heavy or scarce precipitation, droughts, cyclones, and the rise of temperatures and sea-levels – are affecting all of us on a daily basis. Children bear the worst consequences of these effects, as they are in a stage of development that requires stable conditions for growth. At the same time children are most susceptible to many of the negative impacts of climate change on health, security and social functioning.


Every year, more than 1 million children die of malnutrition; malaria kills eight hundred thousand children under 5 years of age and respiratory diseases cause more than 2 million child deaths. These figures are expected to increase with droughts, water shortages, rising temperatures, and increased pollution deriving from climate change. Forced migration and armed conflicts for food and water access will be more likely to occur and will consequently raise child protection concerns such as forced recruitment, displacement, family separation and exploitation. Impacts on livelihoods will have repercussions on school attendance and on family and social structures.


The impacts of climate change affect the well-being of all children in small communities and big towns as well as in large metropolises. Effects in the urban environment may challenge children differently – in cities for example there may be fewer spaces for safe play as a result of heavy traffic and pollution, exposure to garbage damps, or overcrowding related to food insecurity. Children in developing countries are more vulnerable than their peers in industrialized countries but all children experience some consequences.


Ensuring a healthy and safe environment is a key element of building a child friendly city or community. CFCs are therefore concerned with understanding and addressing the impacts of climate change on children. Strategies for both mitigation and adaptation are required at the national level as well as locally. Depending on the local situation, mitigation strategies may include interventions in water supply and sanitation; generation of clean energy and arrangements for alternative sources of water; disaster risk reduction and preparedness; and capacity building of communities. Adaptation strategies would aim at increasing the city/community’s services to meet the newly generated needs, by investing in health related interventions, awareness raising and strengthening of safety nets and social protection programmes for families and children.


In planning and implementing interventions, children must be recognized as key stakeholders and protagonists of change. After all, children have the keenest interest in the environment in which they will live in the future, and they know their surrounding environment better than adults. Children can be involved in data collection on the environment; in studying climate change; in proposing and being part of initiatives such as water collection and tree planting; and in disaster preparedness efforts including by developing evacuation plans and risk maps. However, to play these roles children need to be empowered by getting to know the risks of climate change and being given scope and responsibility for taking action. Environmental education and the creation of spaces for children to learn and participate are important steps toward achieving improvements and finding solutions. With children, we can build a safer environment for all citizens!


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Child well-being and CFC

The concept of child friendliness is closely connected to child well-being which, since the 1996 UN Habitat Conference, has been identified as the “ultimate indicator” of a healthy sustainable community. Child well-being spans several dimensions – including physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and economic – and basically provides an image of the children’s situation in different domains. It expands upon the concepts of multidimensional child poverty and deprivation, which generally retain a focus on material factors. Child well-being may be represented as a map of key dimensions and corresponding indicators that describe children’s living conditions and satisfaction of their needs. The starting point for its definition is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which summarises well-being in such principles as the right to “an adequate standard of living” (Art. 27) or the “highest attainable standard of health care” (Art.24).


A recent attempt to assess child well-being in industrialised countries is presented in UNICEF’s Report Card No. 7. The analysis uses a number of indicators grouped in six dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviours and risks, and young people’s subjective sense of their own well-being.


Several countries have engaged in the effort of developing a map of child well-being. Nationally defined sets of indicators vary according to the country and on the availability of data. For example, participation is one area that is often led aside, considering the selection of indicators is mostly driven by the availability of official data and surveys.


Monitoring child well-being indicators at the local level is useful for a child friendly city/community. However, relatively few examples of locally applicable maps, indicators or databases have been identified. The assessment of child well-being at the local level is challenged by the limited availability and representativeness of data. A range of methods may be used to summarise and present information on child well-being. Data on specific indicators or dimensions may be gathered in multiple tables or overlapping maps. Alternatively, multiple dimensions may be condensed into a single value or index, which is easily accessible and can be appealing for advocacy purposes. But indexes tend to mask variations in performances on different dimensions, as is usually seen in assessments on well-being. Consequently, composite or hybrid approaches are often used, as best suiting available data on local situations.


Within the CFC Initiative, some countries (e.g. Brazil, The Philippines, Spain, and France) have identified key dimensions and indicators to monitor and assess the level of child friendliness of cities and communities and to promote a positive competition among the concerned local settings framed into an accreditation/award system. The current UNICEF IRC/Childwatch-CERG research project also aims at developing assessment and monitoring tools which overlap key dimensions and indicators on child well-being based on the CRC. The participatory approach is a distinct feature of these tools, as children, caregivers and community members are the main source of data for the completion of the assessment process. Examples of efforts to envision how children perceive their own well-being have also been promoted, like in Ireland and Australia.


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