Child poverty- Khalid Bhatti

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Women and children suffer the most in any crisis, whether a natural disaster, war, pandemic or economic crisis.

The economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed millions of people into poverty. Rising poverty, unemployment and falling incomes mean more miseries for poor families, and women and children bear the brunt of these worsening social and economic conditions.

There is a widespread lack of recognition about the impact that living in poverty can have on children’s mental health and well-being. Growing up in poverty can damage children’s well-being and their future life chances.

Children who grow up impoverished suffer from poor living standards, develop fewer skills for the workforce, and earn lower wages as adults. For those growing up in humanitarian crises, the risks of deprivation and exclusion surge.

Even in the richest countries, one in seven children still lives in poverty. Today, one in four children in the European Union is at risk of falling into poverty.

Poverty is not natural. It can be reduced by increasing the wages of workers, with fair distribution of wealth and resources, through social programmes, widening the social security net and providing free and quality education and health. There is no doubt that poverty is a curse and takes away most of the joys and happiness of childhood.

Many social scientists and researchers who have worked on this issue say that poverty affects the children in five ways. First, poverty can harm children through the negative effects it has on their families and the home environment. Second, poor children are more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, which is associated with numerous social ills. Third, poverty leads to poor physical, emotional and behavioural health. Fourth, poverty creates and widens achievement gaps. And fifth, poverty harms the brain and other body systems.

According to a new Unicef report, ‘Lives Upended – How Covid-19 threatens the futures of 600 million South Asian Children”, an estimated 120 million children living in South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could slip into poverty within the next six months due to the Covid-19 crisis. Around 240 million children in South Asia were already living in poverty before the Covid-19 pandemic.

This means that 360 million out of 600 million children will be in poverty. That is more than half of the total children in South Asia. This one figure is enough to give sleepless nights to the ruling class in South Asian countries. It is really embarrassing that half of the children in South Asia are living in poverty.

Both nuclear powers in South Asia have the largest number of children living in poverty. This is the result of decades-long misplaced priorities and flawed policies. But they sleep well because they consider poverty a natural phenomenon. For them, poverty is not the result of their policies and unequal distribution of wealth and resources in the society.

They don’t believe that poverty is the by-product of the existing social and economic structure and system. Every government blames the mismanagement, corruption and flawed policies of previous governments and continues to implement the same policies which fueled poverty and inequality.

Alleviating or reducing poverty is not the top priority of the ruling elite in South Asia. Despite the high GDP growth rates of the last decade in most South Asian countries, the numbers of people living in poverty did not fall significantly. The trickle-down effect of high GDP growth never materialised or at least was never felt by the poor of society.

This simply means that half of the next generation will grow up in poverty related social and economic ills. The report covers eight South Asian countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The Unicef report says that an estimated 240 million children already live in ‘multidimensional’ poverty – including factors such as poor health, lack of education, poor sanitation and poor quality of work in these countries.

South Asia is home to almost a quarter of the global population and cases of coronavirus infections have risen in recent weeks even as the region lifts its lockdown to revive economies badly affected by the virus.

The report points out that “while they may be less susceptible to the virus itself, children are being profoundly affected by the fallout, including the economic and social consequences of the lockdown”.

The report has quoted research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to warn of the adverse consequences of coronavirus spread. “…in the worst-case scenario, South Asia could see the additional deaths of as many as 881,000 children aged 5 or under and that of 36,000 mothers over the next twelve months….The bulk of these deaths would occur in India and Pakistan, although Bangladesh and Afghanistan could also see significant levels of additional mortality.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.