An 18th Century proverb reads: “We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.” Though the author’s identity has been lost from the annals of time, the words still ring true; an epidemic of neglect afflicts the world’s children. While children are often viewed as blank canvasses to be molded and infused with the ideology of their elders, we must not forget that children themselves have thoughts and ideas. Children require care and nurturing in order to develop their individual identities and become the leaders the world so desperately needs. With these charges in mind, it is incumbent upon older generations to consider not only the world we are leaving for our children and their children, but also the world in which our children are struggling to develop today.
From a global pandemic of poverty to a lack of educational resources, children around the world face an unprecedented range of obstacles. According to UNICEF, by 2030 167 million children will live in extreme poverty, 69 million children under the age of five will have died, and 60 million children of primary school age will be out of school. To combat this future, many countries are actively working to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals advance progress in the fight for children’s rights by expanding access to healthcare, education, and other basic needs. Though implementation of UN guidelines and previous humanitarian efforts have led to positive developments, such as global mortality rates for youth under age five dropping by 53% since 1990, there is still much work to be done.
While children’s issues are pervasive in the United States, where one in five children live below the federal poverty line and one in two children are poor or nearing poverty, children in other parts of the world face threats most starkly. Threats experienced during childhood vary by geographic region and by political composition of nations and territories. These dangers range from those concerning poverty to those heralding the immediate risk of death. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, one in five children work under difficult or squalid conditions and at least seven nations are reported to recruit child soldiers, a statistic that does not take into account child militias run by non-state actors. In Central and South America, the profitability of the drug trade lures poverty-stricken and displaced children into gangs and lives of violence. In Syria and Yemen, children face a reality in which bullets spray and bombs fall on their schools, while two million children in Yemen are prevented from attending school due to war. Ultimately, the threats to children’s development and futures across the globe are innumerable and intractable.
One risk facing the world’s children is a rampant child labor crisis. In poverty-stricken regions of the world, child labor can stem from the inability of small business owners and farmers to afford hiring employees, forcing a reliance on the work of their children. Child labor constitutes a hazard to children’s futures because it deprives them of an education, which damages their prospects for long-term economic advancement. When children are at work in factories or fields, they cannot attend school to become literate and develop other skills that will be useful to their futures. As such, the average youth literacy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is only 70%. Child labor also affects healthy growth and development, as children’s muscles and bones are worked to their limits at young ages. Children made to labor early, at a detriment to their education and development, fare poorer in the future than those allowed to progress through school and into the workforce.
An advanced and especially malicious form of child labor, which is common in countries around the world, is the formation of child militias. In an affront to the healthy development of the children they arm, militias throughout the world abduct children and force them to fight for their causes. These children are forced to choose between their own survival and committing murder or other acts of violence, a choice bearing serious consequences for their mental health. A 2013 study at the University of Exeter suggested evidence that personality is more a product of nurture than nature. As child soldiers are negatively nurtured by war criminals, the personalities they develop are characterized by aggression and anger.
Additionally, former child soldiers often experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. In a 2010 book of interviews conducted by the United States Institute of Peace, former child soldiers discussed the impact of forced fighting on their mental state. One former fighter remarked, “I get these terrible nightmares. They are always about the children we killed… and I hear the voice of the commander telling me to do things.” For former child soldiers, the prospects of eventual reintegration into society can be limited by the negative development of their personalities as well as the onset of PTSD. In addition to the damage to child soldiers’ mental health, they are often regarded by those in the societies they seek to rejoin as criminals and are ostracized by those communities.
While children in some parts of the world are often forced into conflict, children in Central and South America are more commonly drawn in by the allure of its profitability. The United Nations estimates drug trade in the Americas generates annual revenues amounting to $150 billion. With profit as the end-goal, cartels like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a violent gang that operates in the United States, Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and many other parts of Central and South America, are notorious for recruiting elementary school-aged children. These children participate in crimes such as murder, rape, prostitution, and drug smuggling. They are forced to endure beatings to pass initiation protocol and are faced with murder or mutilation if found to be disloyal.
Despite the risk, children join cartels and gangs because they have no other option. Due to crime, war, and natural disaster, over 9 million people are displaced in the Americas. Over 100,000 of these individuals are estimated to be unaccompanied children. When faced with no other alternatives, these young IDPs and refugees often either escape to America, join a gang or cartel, or die. When children join gangs and engage in violence or drug smuggling, they are branded criminals and lose the chance to secure a meaningful and free future. Along with the developmental risks associated with negative nurturing, when children join gangs they increase the likelihood that they will be cast out by society. The temporary belonging and security offered in this transactional relationship is unsustainable and isolates children across Central and South America. Similarly to former child soldiers, children in gangs are influenced by their experiences to develop negatively into uneducated and aggressive adults. While this model of indoctrination is common in relation to the drug trade, it is not unique to the Americas. A similar method of recruitment is often used by terrorist groups throughout the world.
In a region far removed from the gold mines of the drug trade, war and instability provide yet another obstacle to the development and success of children. With many countries attempting to solve the crises in Yemen and Syria, children are often afterthoughts in the policies that drive intervention. According to a field report conducted by the Studies and Educational Media Center in Yemen, 22% of Yemeni students were prevented from attending school in the 2015-16 academic year due to both the destruction of schools by Saudi-led airstrikes and the conversion of schools into military centers by Houthi militants. In Syria, 25% of schools have been damaged, destroyed, or repurposed, and 50% of children are out of school. Children living in these nations are forced to choose between their safety and their education. As a result, millions of children remain illiterate and uneducated. The disenfranchisement of these children leaves them ripe for recruitment by terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Around the world, children face threats to their development into healthy, educated, and prosperous adults. They are deprived of basic rights and denied access to services that are taken for granted in developed, conflict-free nations. Future leaders, scientists, doctors, artists, authors, and innovators are impeded from fulfilling these destinies, left underdeveloped, corrupt, or uneducated. An entire generation is growing, yet not maturing, challenged to survive impossible circumstances. Those fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of the threats facing millions of children around the world must educate themselves and work to ensure their representatives and governments develop policies to combat these threats. For our society to continue to advance, we must facilitate the healthy development of our children. The world needs leaders for tomorrow, but too many of them are being lost today.