Poverty is complex and can affect all areas of a child's life: physically, economically, socially, emotionally and spiritually.
12 Aug, 2021
Poverty and Children
Poverty exposes children to great vulnerability in most areas of their lives. Perhaps most notably, children living in poverty are at an increased risk of poor health, malnutrition, lack of education, forced or dangerous labour, violence and child marriage.1
In Part 1 of this blog series, we learnt how poverty is about more than just economics and material wealth. Now we need to unpack what the impact on children is and what it means for both their present situation and future prospects.
From birth, children in poverty are almost twice as likely to die before the age of five as the world's most well-off children. Of the 5.9 million under-five deaths in 2015, nearly half were caused by largely preventable and treatable diseases or conditions such as pneumonia, measles, sepsis and diarrhoea. Mothers and their newborns living in poverty are also less likely to receive a post-natal check-up, increasing the risk of post-birth complications.2 94% of all maternal deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.3
Of the 5.9 million under-five deaths in 2015, nearly half were caused by largely preventable and treatable diseases or conditions such as pneumonia, measles, sepsis and diarrhoea.
Health concerns continue through early childhood as access to land, credit and property rights result in marginalised communities living in informal or illegal settlements. As a result, children are exposed to health threats through overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and a lack of access to basic services, sometimes because their parents can't afford to register them at birth. They are therefore also denied access to education, health care and other public services, if those services exist at all. Insufficient, or non-existent, clean water continues to be a major risk for children in many countries.
Medical difficulties in childhood affects later development and impacts the child's chances for education and future employment.
Good nutrition is vital for children as they develop and grow. Not only is it important for their physical wellbeing, it enables them to better learn, participate in their communities and remain resilient in times of crisis.4
Children who are lacking the nutrition they need are more likely to be tired, unwell, doing poorly in school and have reduced job opportunities in the future, keeping them in a state of poverty.5
According to the World Health Organisation, a lack of nutrition—malnutrition—typically refers to three broad groups:
- Undernutrition, which typically results in a low weight for a child's height (wasting), a low height for their age (stunting) or simply being underweight for their age
- Micronutrient-related malnutrition, which is a lack of important vitamins or minerals (or an excess)
- Overweight, obesity and diet-related malnutrition which can lead to conditions such as heart diseases, diabetes and some cancers6
Children living in poverty are at risk in all three of these categories. Micronutrient deficiency, in particular, can lead “to growth stunting, lower cognitive abilities, lethargy and poor attention, and greater severity and rates of infection. These effects limit educational progress, physical work capacity and life expectancy.”7
A 2019 report from UNICEF highlighted that one in three children globally show obvious signs of malnutrition (stunting, wasting and overweight). This is exacerbated in areas hardest hit by poverty, particularly Africa, where 39.4% in West and Central Africa and 42.1% in Eastern and Southern Africa of children under the age of 5 are not growing well due to malnutrition.1 And these stats only reflect the visible signs. Malnutrition in the form of nutrient deficiency is often only noticed when it's too late to do anything to help.
Poverty is one of the most difficult barriers for children to overcome to receive an education. Globally, children from the poorest households are almost five times more likely to not attend primary school than those from the wealthiest.8
Education and poverty are often linked. If parents are unable to earn a reasonable income then a child is less likely to receive education, and without education a child is less likely to be able to support themselves in the future. In some cases, if a parent did not receive an education themselves, they may not fully understand the value of it for their own children either.
A UNESCO study from 2017 directly ties low levels of childhood education to reduced future economic prosperity.
A UNESCO study from 2017 directly ties low levels of childhood education to reduced future economic prosperity. According to the report, if all adults had received just two more years of education or completed secondary school it would result in 60 million more people lifted out of poverty.9
Yet this is not an easy goal to achieve. The same report highlights that in 2015 there were 264 million children out of school, the majority of whom were from developing countries. That's roughly one in five school age children around the world who don't attend school.
Children themselves understand the value of education. For children in the Compassion Child Sponsorship Program, one of the most common answers to 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' is 'a teacher'. When asked about the importance of school, Juana in Honduras, the grandmother of first-grader Jose, sees the benefits, recognising that through education "they [the children] can become professionals and defeat poverty. My grandchildren are given an opportunity that I did not have, and I want them to embrace it."
Education gives children the skills and knowledge they need to have a chance for a better future, yet for too many the opportunity to even attend school is limited or impossible.
Education gives children the skills and knowledge they need to have a chance for a better future, yet for too many the opportunity to even attend school is limited or impossible. For some the cost is too high. For others, the closest school is too far away or they don’t have the proper documentation to attend, as is the case for some refugees or for children whose parents could not afford to register them at birth. Even for those who do attend, under-resourced teachers, inadequate learning material and unsuitable facilities create additional difficulties in receiving a successful education.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), poverty is the greatest single force behind child labour.10
It's important to understand that not all work done by children falls under child labour. If children have the opportunity to work in a safe environment and in a way that doesn't interfere with their education or health, it can be of benefit, just as older teenagers in Australia are often encouraged to work a part-time job. Child labour, as defined by the ILO, is "work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and is harmful to physical and mental development."11
In 2016, there were 152 million children engaged in some form of child labour—that's one in 10.
In 2016, there were 152 million children engaged in some form of child labour—that's one in 10. Nearly half of that number were engaged in hazardous work that could cause harm. Child labour is nearly as common for girls as it is for boys and is most prevalent in developing countries. Of those 152 million children, 48% are between the ages of 5 and 11 years old.12
Though many children are forced into the worst forms of child labour, such as slavery and drug trafficking, others choose to work because the survival of their family depends on it.
Violence against children can take many forms: physical, mental, negligent and exploitative. Physical discipline at home is the most common form of violence children experience, while older girls are frequently at risk from intimate partners.13 Children who live in extreme poverty are among the most vulnerable to all types of violence.14
The outcomes of violence are varied and significant, ranging from physical injury and disease transmission to mental health challenges and unplanned pregnancies. All of which have the potential to drastically impact the life of a child and reduce their chance for education and future job opportunities.
Girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to be married before turning 18, and those with little or no education are up to six times more likely to be married than those who have completed high school.2 Child marriage not only cuts short a girl's opportunity for education, but often isolates them from their friends and families.
A UNICEF report from shows that young brides are at an even greater risk of physical, emotional and sexual violence than other children.13 In many cultures, as girls reach puberty, it is expected that they will become a wife and then a mother. For some parents, they may see pursuing marriage for their young daughter as greater protection for her or as a chance for the whole family to increase their economic prospects. In other cases, girls can be kidnapped and forced to become brides.
More than 700 million women alive today were married before their eighteenth birthday, and nearly a third of them were married before their fifteenth.
More than 700 million women alive today were married before their eighteenth birthday, and nearly a third of them were married before their fifteenth. Boys are also impacted by child marriage, but a significantly higher number of girls are affected and are typically more exposed to violence and isolation.15
Child marriage puts children at greater risk of abuse, neglect and challenges that they are not yet physically or emotionally ready to face. It denies them their childhood and reduces their chance at education and employment.
In Western nations, poverty is rarely discussed in terms of its psychological and social effects. Yet in developing countries, people living in poverty talk about their circumstances in "terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness."16 All of these things can lead to a loss of self-worth and a sense of despair that nothing can—or ever will—change.
For children, poverty during childhood results in an adaption to short-term coping strategies that lead to long-term health consequences. Those in poverty are often shunned or rejected by wider society, leading to feelings of inadequacy and a loss of confidence. This low level of confidence can then lead them to doubt in their own ability to succeed or change their circumstances.17
In many communities, these feelings can be further exacerbated by local religions that put people at the mercy and whims of spirits. In some cases, these supernatural concerns are used by witchdoctors or others to exploit people or further oppress them.
All these issues become major contributors to the ongoing, multi-generational cycle of poverty. But more powerful than poverty is the hope Jesus brings.
Words by Andrew Barker.
1 UNICEF (2019). Towards universal social protection for children: Achieving SDG 1.3. https://www.unicef.org/media/49401/file/Towards%20universal%20 social%20protection%20for%20children.pdf
2 UNICEF (2016). The State of the World's Children 2016: A fair chance for every child. https://www.unicef.org/media/50076/file/UNICEFSOWC2016-ENG.pdf
3 United Nations (n.d.). Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/health/
4 UNICEF (n.d.). UNICEF and the Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.unicef.org/sdgs#sdg3
5 UNICEF (2019). The changing face of malnutrition: The state of the world's children 2019. https://features.unicef.org/state-of-the-worlds-children-2019-nutrition/
6 World Health Organisation (2020, April 1). Malnutrition. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition
7 Demment, M., Young, M., Sensenig, R. Providing Micronutrients through Food-Based Solutions: A Key to Human and National Development, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 133, Issue 11, November 2003, Pages 3879S–3885S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/133.11.3879S
8 UNICEF (n.d.). Education. https://www.unicef.org/education
9 United Nations Associated of Australia (2017, June 28). UNESCO study reveals correlation between poverty and education. https://www.unaa.org.au/2017/06/28/unesco-study-reveals-correlation-between-poverty-and-education/
10 International Labour Organization (n.d.). Causes. https://www.ilo.org/moscow/areas-of-work/child-labour/WCMS_248984/lang--en/index.htm
11 International Labour Organization (n.d.). What is child labour. https://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm
12 International Labour Organization (2017). Global Estimates of Child Labour. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/publica tion/wcms_575541.pdf
13 UNICEF (2014). A statistical snapshot of violence against adolescent girls.
14 UNICEF (2017). Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Children and Adolescents: Theory of Change. https://www.unicef.org/media/83206/file/Violence-Against-Children-ToC.pdf
15 UNICEF (n.d.). Fighting child poverty. https://www.unicef.cn/en/stories/fighting-child-poverty
16 Corbett, S., Fikkert, B (2012). When Helping Hurts. Moody Publishers. Chicago.
17 Fell, B., Hewstone, M (2015). Psychological perspectives on poverty: A review of psychological research into the causes and consequences of poverty. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/psychological-perspectives-poverty
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