People's Stories Children's Rights

Act to secure a more sustainable, safer future for every child
by UNICEF, Education International, UNESCO, agencies
Act to secure a more sustainable, safer future for every child, by Catherine Russell - Executive Director, UNICEF
Children everywhere are facing interlocking crises including hunger, lack of access to education and conflict — many of which exacerbate each other.
The interlocking crises of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change mean millions of children are being uprooted and pushed into poverty and starvation.
Disruptions in routine immunization and healthcare threaten a resurgence of life-threatening diseases like measles, while a global learning crisis risks becoming a global learning catastrophe for an entire generation of children.
But this can be prevented with a concerted global push to protect, support, and educate every child.
It is a dangerous time to be a child. In Ukraine, millions of children and families have fled the violent war that has engulfed their country — and exacerbated a global food crisis.
Years of conflict and crises in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen have shattered economies along with all the systems children rely on to survive and thrive.
The worst climate-induced crisis in 40 years is threatening 10 million children in the Horn of Africa — 1.7 million of whom could die without urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated threats to the world’s most vulnerable children – and created new risks to their lives and futures. Millions more children are living in poverty, millions more girls are at risk of child marriage, and millions more children are falling into learning poverty, lacking even the most basic skills.
Around the world today, more children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance than at any time in UNICEF’s 75-year history.
The evidence is clear: we cannot meet our global development goals unless we reach these most-excluded children and invest in their potential.
System strengthening and humanitarian action
Currently, more than 400 million children live in conflict zones. Millions of them are out of school, without access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Millions are suffering from malnutrition — including its most severe and deadly forms.
The war in Ukraine has driven up food prices in places where children are already going hungry, like Yemen and Syria.
Our humanitarian response must not only meet these urgent needs. It should also help communities prepare for future shocks.
If we want to ‘future-proof’ our children, both public and private sectors need to invest in more resilient systems that help children cope, including health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation and social protection systems. Helping families to remain stable in crises yields cascading benefits, especially for children.
Primary health system strengthening
The pandemic has made clear that well-functioning and resilient primary health systems are the foundation of our ability to respond to health emergencies.
A fully resourced primary healthcare facility — staffed by well-trained, properly remunerated healthcare workers equipped with essential products and equipment — is the first line of defence against pandemics. It is also the most effective point of delivery for other essential health services, including nutrition and immunization.
Now is the moment for global action. Investing in primary health care can achieve three goals at once: healthier children, a more equitable end to the pandemic, and a lasting legacy of more resilient health systems and more sustainable societies.
Climate resilience and adaptation
UNICEF estimates that nearly 1 billion children are already at extremely high risk from the impacts of climate change. Without urgent action, it will be every child.
Governments have a responsibility to reduce emissions and invest in mitigation strategies. But we also need to work across sectors to help communities adapt to the immediate realities of climate change.
These investments will pay off. UNICEF estimates that $1 invested in adaptation may yield up to $10 in economic gains.
This area is primed for public partnerships to drive innovation — and especially partnerships with young people. Businesses can also help by investing in new technologies and green skills building, changing energy and water consumption practices and exerting influence through operations and supply chains.
The global learning crisis
Even before COVID-19, more than 260 million children were out of school. Half of all children living in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read a simple sentence at the age of 10.
Pandemic school closures and related disruptions in learning are turning a crisis into a catastrophe, with serious implications for children today — as well as the future workforce.
The impact of school closures could cost as much as $17 trillion in lifetime earnings for an entire generation.
We need to bring every child back into the classroom, assess their learning, help them catch up and support their wellbeing. Every child who needs it must have access to a remedial programme focused on basic reading and maths, the foundation of all future learning.
Business can help by investing in innovative ways to reach children and improve learning. They can also invest in skills training for young people, including transferable, digital, entrepreneurial and job-specific skills.
Mental health of children
COVID-19 lockdowns and other effects of the pandemic have had a deep impact on the mental health of adolescents and young people.
The pandemic has also revealed the gap between mental health needs and access to support services. Too many young people are not receiving treatment and support. Mental health challenges remain stigmatized and underfunded.
The cost of inaction is enormous: the estimated annual loss in human capital arising from mental health conditions in children and adolescents up to the age of 19 is $387.2 billion. We need a “whole of society” approach to promote mental health, engaging all sectors.
These are just a few areas where we can make a difference in the lives of millions of children. With so much evidence demonstrating the inseparable connection between the wellbeing of children and sustainable development, it is time to put children at the center of the public agenda.
Nelson Mandela famously said that “there is no keener reflection of a society than how it treats its children.” By extension, there can be no greater measure of a society’s sustainability than the investments it makes in the wellbeing of its children.
May 2022
Soaring food prices driven by the war in Ukraine and pandemic-fuelled budget cuts are set to drive up child hunger.
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell on the global food security crisis.
"This crisis is getting worse – and the lives of millions of children hang in the balance. "The combined force of conflict, climate change, and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was already wreaking havoc on families’ ability to feed their children. Food prices had already hit all-time highs. The war in Ukraine has only made this worse, driving food, fuel, and fertilizer shortages.
"Over the last few months as Executive Director of UNICEF, I have seen with my own eyes what food insecurity means for the most vulnerable children and women.
"It means more than a shortage of food. It means hunger. Malnourishment. Disease. Excruciating pain. Death.
"In April, I visited Gode, in Ethiopia, where I met children suffering from severe wasting – the most lethal form of acute malnutrition. These children were so thin and frail, they seemed skeletal. It was painfully clear that without treatment, some of them might die.
"The month before, I travelled to Kandahar in Afghanistan, where I met the mother of a newborn. "She was so malnourished that when I put my arm around her shoulders, I could feel her bones through her wrap. When I held her baby, I could barely feel its weight in my arms.
"Most people have never heard of wasting, the most lethal form of malnutrition. But it is one of the leading underlying causes of preventable deaths in children – and it is on the rise, even in comparatively stable communities.
"Children suffering from wasting can’t eat normally. You can’t save starving babies with a bag of wheat. They need urgent therapeutic nutrition, delivered in the form of a paste we call RUTF – ready to use therapeutic food.
"RUTF can literally mean the difference between life and death for a child. "But this year, around 10 million children who desperately need it are not receiving it. To make matters worse, the price of RUTF has already risen by 16 per cent. If funding doesn’t increase immediately to meet these rising costs, hundreds of thousands of children will not receive this lifesaving treatment.
"A child malnutrition catastrophe is not inevitable. We know what works, and we know how to deliver it. But we need to come together – and we need to act now.
World a ‘virtual tinderbox’ for catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition in children.
The number of children with severe wasting was rising even before war in Ukraine threatened to plunge the world deeper into a spiralling global food crisis - and it’s getting worse, UNICEF warned in a new Child Alert.
Just released, Severe wasting: An overlooked child survival emergency shows that in spite of rising levels of severe wasting in children and rising costs for life-saving treatment, global financing to save the lives of children suffering from wasting is also under threat.
“Even before the war in Ukraine placed a strain on food security worldwide, conflict, climate shocks and COVID-19 were already wreaking havoc on families’ ability to feed their children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “The world is rapidly becoming a virtual tinderbox of preventable child deaths and children suffering from wasting.
Currently, at least 10 million severely wasted children – or 2 in 3 – do not have access to the most effective treatment for wasting, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).
UNICEF warns that a combination of global shocks to food security worldwide – led by the war in Ukraine, economies struggling with pandemic recovery, and persistent drought conditions in some countries due to climate change – is creating conditions for a significant increase in global levels of severe wasting.
Meanwhile, the price of ready-to-use therapeutic food is projected to increase by up to 16 per cent over the next six months due to a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients. This could leave at least 600,000 additional children without access to life-saving treatment at current spending levels. Shipping and delivery costs are also expected to remain high.
“For millions of children every year, these sachets of therapeutic paste are the difference between life and death. A sixteen per cent price increase may sound manageable in the context of global food markets, but at the end of that supply chain is a desperately malnourished child, for whom the stakes are not manageable at all,” said Russell.
Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height resulting in weakened immune systems – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. Worldwide, millions of children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in 1 in 5 deaths among this age group.
South Asia remains the ‘epicentre’ of severe wasting, where roughly 1 in 22 children is severely wasted, three times as high as sub-Saharan Africa. And across the rest of the world, countries are facing historically high rates of severe wasting.
In Afghanistan, for example, 1.1 million children are expected to suffer from severe wasting this year, nearly double the number in 2018. Drought in the Horn of Africa means the number of children with severe wasting could quickly rise from 1.7 million to 2 million, while a 26 per cent increase is predicted in the Sahel compared to 2018.
The Child Alert also notes that even countries in relative stability, such as Uganda, have seen a 40 per cent or more increase in child wasting since 2016, due to rising poverty and household food insecurity causing inadequate quality and frequency of diets for children and pregnant women.
Climate-related shocks including severe cyclical drought and inadequate access to clean water and sanitation services are contributing to the rising numbers.
The report warns that aid for wasting remains woefully low and is predicted to decline sharply in the coming years, with little hope of recovering to pre-pandemic levels before 2028. Global aid spent on wasting amounts to just 2.8 per cent of the total health sector ODA (Official Development Assistance) and 0.2 per cent of total ODA spending.
To reach every child with life-saving treatment for severe wasting, UNICEF is calling for:
Governments to increase wasting aid by at least 59 per cent above 2019 ODA levels to help reach to help reach all children in need of treatment in 23 high burden countries.
Countries to include treatment for child wasting under health and long-term development funding schemes so that all children can benefit from treatment programmes, not just those in humanitarian crisis settings.
Ensure that budget allocations to address the global hunger crisis include specific allocations for therapeutic food interventions to address the immediate needs of children suffering from severe wasting.
Donors and civil society organizations to prioritize funding for wasting to ensure a diverse, growing and a healthy ecosystem of donor support.
“There is simply no reason why a child should suffer from severe wasting – not when we have the ability to prevent it. But there is precious little time to reignite a global effort to prevent, detect and treat malnutrition before a bad situation gets much, much worse,” said Russell.
Apr. 2022
23 countries – home to around 405 million schoolchildren – are yet to fully open schools
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, 23 countries – home to around 405 million schoolchildren – are yet to fully open schools, with many schoolchildren at risk of dropping out, according to a new UNICEF report released today.
Are children really learning? features country-level data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures on children, as well as an updated analysis of the state of children’s learning before the pandemic. It points out that 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling over the past 2 years. This amounts to 2 trillion hours of lost in-person learning globally.
“When children are not able to interact with their teachers and their peers directly, their learning suffers. When they are not able to interact with their teachers and peers at all, their learning loss may become permanent,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “This rising inequality in access to learning means that education risks becoming the greatest divider, not the greatest equalizer. When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.”
In addition to data on learning loss, the report points to emerging evidence that shows many children did not return to school when their classrooms reopened.
Data from Liberia show 43 per cent of students in public schools did not return when schools reopened in December 2020. The number of out-of-school children in South Africa tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021. In Uganda, around 1 in 10 schoolchildren did not report back to school in January 2022 after schools were closed for two years. In Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48 per cent, from 6.4 per cent to 9.5 per cent between 2020 and 2021. In Kenya, a survey of 4,000 adolescents aged 10-19 years found that 16 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys did not return when schools reopened.
Out-of-school children are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized children in society. They are the least likely to be able to read, write or do basic math, and are cut off from the safety net that schools provide, which puts them at an increased risk of exploitation and a lifetime of poverty and deprivation.
The report highlights that while out-of-school children suffer the greatest loss, pre-pandemic data from 32 countries and territories show a desperately poor level of learning, a situation that has likely been exacerbated by the scale of learning lost to the pandemic. In the countries analysed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills.
In many cases, there is no guarantee that schoolchildren learned the basics at all. In the 32 countries and territories examined, a quarter of Grade 8 schoolchildren – around 14 years old – did not have foundational reading skills and more than half did not have numeracy skills expected of a Grade 2 student, around 7 years old.
“Even before the pandemic, the most marginalized children were being left behind. As the pandemic enters its third year, we can’t afford to go back to “normal.” We need a new normal: getting children into classrooms, assessing where they are in their learning, providing them with the intensive support they need to recover what they’ve missed, and ensuring that teachers have the training and learning resources they need. The stakes are too high to do anything less,” said Russell.
Jan. 2022
More than 635 million students remain affected by full or partial school closures. On the International Day of Education and as the COVID-19 pandemic nears its two-year mark, UNICEF shares the latest available data on the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning.
“In March, we will mark two years of COVID-19-related disruptions to global education. Quite simply, we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education.
“While the disruptions to learning must end, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition.”
Children have lost basic numeracy and literacy skills. Globally, disruption to education has meant millions of children have significantly missed out on the academic learning they would have acquired if they had been in the classroom, with younger and more marginalized children facing the greatest loss.
In low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53 per cent pre-pandemic.
In Ethiopia, primary school children are estimated to have learned between 30 to 40 per cent of the math they would have learned if it had been a normal school year.
In the US, learning losses have been observed in many states including Texas, California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland. In Texas, for example, two thirds of children in grade 3 tested below their grade level in math in 2021, compared to half of children in 2019.
In several Brazilian states, around 3 in 4 children in grade 2 are off-track in reading, up from 1 in 2 children pre-pandemic. Across Brazil, 1 in 10 students aged 10-15 reported they are not planning to return to school once their schools reopen.
In South Africa, schoolchildren are between 75 per cent and a full school year behind where they should be. Some 400,000 to 500,000 students reportedly dropped out of school altogether between March 2020 and July 2021.
Follow-on consequences of school closures are on the rise. In addition to learning loss, school closures have impacted children’s mental health, reduced their access to a regular source of nutrition, and increased their risk of abuse.
A growing body of evidence shows that COVID-19 has caused high rates of anxiety and depression among children and young people, with some studies finding that girls, adolescents and those living in rural areas are most likely to experience these problems.
More than 370 million children globally missed out on school meals during school closures, losing what is for some children the only reliable source of food and daily nutrition.

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Two-thirds of households with children have lost income during Pandemic
by UNICEF-World Bank, ILO, agencies
Mar. 2022
At least two-thirds of households with children have lost income since the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, according to a new report published today by UNICEF and the World Bank.
Impact of COVID-19 on the welfare of households with children – which presents findings from data collected in 35 countries – notes that households with three or more children were most likely to have lost income, with more than three-quarters experiencing a reduction in earnings. This compares to 68 percent of households with one or two children.
The report also notes that income losses have left adults in one in four households with children going without food for a day or more. Adults in nearly half of households with children reported skipping a meal due to a lack of money. Around a quarter of adults in households with or without children reported stopping working since the pandemic hit, the report says.
“The (very) modest progress made in reducing child poverty in recent years risks being reversed in all parts of the world. Families have experienced loss at a staggering scale. While last year inflation reached its highest level in years, more than two-thirds of households with children brought in less money. Families cannot afford food or essential health care services. They cannot afford housing. It is a dire picture, and the poorest households are being pushed even deeper in poverty,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Director of Programme Group.
The report finds that children are being deprived of the basics, with children in 40 percent of households not engaging in any form of educational activities while their schools were closed. Given that data is compiled at the household level, the actual participation rate at individual level is likely even lower, especially for children who come from households with three or more children.
“The disruptions to education and health care for children, coupled with catastrophic out-of-pocket health expenses which affect more than 1 billion people, may well put the brakes on the development of human capital – the levels of education, health and well-being people need to become productive members of society,” said Carolina Sanchez-Páramo, Global Director of Poverty and Equity for the World Bank. “This could lock in increases in inequality for generations to come, making it less likely that children will do better than their parents or grandparents.”
While households with three or more children were the most likely to experience a loss of income, they were also more likely to receive government assistance, with 25 percent accessing this support, compared to 10 percent of households with no children. The report notes that this somewhat helped to mitigate the adverse impact of the crisis on households who received support.
The report notes that prior to COVID-19, one in six children worldwide – 356 million – experienced extreme poverty, where household members struggled to survive on less than $1.90 a day. More than 40 percent of children lived in moderate poverty. And nearly 1 billion children lived in multidimensional poverty in developing countries, a figure that has since increased by 10 percent as a result of the pandemic.
UNICEF and the World Bank urge a rapid expansion of social protection systems for children and their families. Support including the delivery of cash transfers and the universalization of child benefits are critical investments that can help lift families out of economic distress and help them prepare for future shocks.
* Note: The report draws on information from a set of high-frequency phone surveys (from 35 countries) and focusing solely on the impact of the crisis on children. In the paper, we analyze the initial impact of the crisis (with survey data collected during the period April to September 2020) as well as the subsequent evolution of the impact of the crisis (with survey data collected during the period October 2020 to May 2021).
We focus on the following harmonized key indicators of children’s welfare covering both their individual conditions as well as those of the household they live in: (i) Income loss and job loss; (ii) Food insecurity (households reporting an adult member didn’t eat for a whole day or skipped a meal due to lack of money/resources); (iii) Social protection programs (whether households have received any government assistance since the beginning of the pandemic); and (iv) Education (participation in any educational activities following closures due to COVID-19).
Sep. 2021
Social protection for children not adequate according to new World Social Protection report.
A new report launched today by the International Labour Organization (ILO) provides a global overview of progress made around the world over the past decade in extending social protection and building rights-based social protection systems, in the context of COVID-19, and with input from UNICEF Innocenti on social protection gaps and opportunities for children.
As COVID-19 continues to imperil years of progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this report underscores what steps must be taken to continue progress in poverty reduction. The World Social Protection Report: Social protection at the crossroads – in pursuit of a better future, a flagship of the ILO, is an essential contribution to the monitoring framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The pandemic has brought to light the pre-existing stark protection gaps across all countries and made it impossible to ignore the persistent social protection deficits experienced in particular by certain groups, such as informal workers, migrants, unpaid carers, and notably: children.
Five key messages from the report:
The pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy across all countries. COVID-19 provoked an unparalleled social protection policy response. Socio-economic recovery remains uncertain and enhanced social protection spending will continue to be crucial.
Countries are at a crossroads with regard to the trajectory of their social protection systems. Establishing universal social protection and realizing the human right to social security for all is the cornerstone of a human-centred approach to obtaining social justice.
Key messages on social protection for families and children
COVID-19 is expected to reverse the modest progress made in reducing child poverty. Before COVID-19 there had been a reduction in children living in extreme poverty from 19.5 per cent of children in 2013 to 17.5 per cent of children in 2017, ( 356 million ). It is estimated that the pandemic has increased the number of children living in income-poor households by more than 142 million, bringing the total to almost 725 million.
Section 4.1 of the report, Social protection for children and families, was co-authored by UNICEF Innocenti's Chief of Social and Economic Policy, Dominic Richardson, and underscores how social protection for children remains limited, yet is critical for unlocking their potential.
The vast majority of children still have no effective social protection coverage, as only 26.4 per cent of children globally receive social protection benefits. Furthermore, effective social protection is particularly low in some regions: 18 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, 15.4 per cent in the Arab States and 12.6 per cent in Africa.
National expenditure, on average, for social protection for children is too low, equating to only 1.1 per cent of GDP, compared to 7 per cent of GDP spent on pensions. The regions of the world with the largest share of children in the population, and the greatest need for social protection, have some of the lowest coverage and expenditure rates, especially sub-Saharan Africa (0.4 per cent of GDP). Consequently, the need to close gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy and to address child poverty is of overriding urgency.
Before and during the pandemic there have been positive developments, including the adoption of universal or quasi-universal child benefits in several countries. Critically, COVID-19 has reignited attention to and awareness of the importance of inclusive social protection systems, high-quality childcare services, and of the need for social protection for caregivers.
While the crisis response to COVID-19 was unprecedented, with fiscal stimuli adopted globally, it was insufficiently child-sensitive. This deficiency, combined with the high risk of a return to austerity, puts recent progress in social protection systems for children in jeopardy.
Key recommendations for enhancing social protection for children
Avoid fiscal austerity and use recovery as a policy opportunity to further strengthen child-sensitive and inclusive social protection systems in order to ensure children’s well-being and achieve the SDGs.
Move rapidly towards universal social protection for children at the country level – including universal child benefits and the policy window provided by COVID-19 must be used to prioritize investments to close critical gaps.
Ensure adequacy within social protection systems in terms of inclusion and gender sensitivity, and that they address climate-related and conflict-related risks.
It is also of paramount importance that policymakers implement an integrated social protection portfolio for children that includes child benefits and childcare services, provision of parental leave, and access to healthcare to deliver the best results for children and society.

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