People's Stories Children's Rights

Children with disabilities face multiple challenges in realizing their rights
by Henrietta Fore
UNICEF Executive Director
Nov. 2021
There are 240 million children with disabilities in the world today.
These children are disadvantaged compared to children without disabilities on almost all measures of child well-being, states a new UNICEF report.
“This new research confirms what we already knew: Children with disabilities face multiple and often compounding challenges in realizing their rights,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“From access to education, to being read to at home; children with disabilities are less likely to be included or heard on almost every measure. All too often, children with disabilities are simply being left behind.”
The report includes internationally comparable data from 42 countries and covers more than 60 indicators of child well-being – from nutrition and health, to access to water and sanitation, protection from violence and exploitation, and education. These indicators are disaggregated by functional difficulty type and severity, child’s sex, economic status, and country.
The report makes clear the barriers children with disabilities face to participating fully in their societies and how this often translates to negative health and social outcomes.
Compared with children without disabilities, children with disabilities are:
* 24 per cent less likely to receive early stimulation and responsive care;
* 42 per cent less likely to have foundational reading and numeracy skills;
* 25 per cent more likely to be wasted and 34 per cent more likely to be stunted;
* 53 per cent more likely to have symptoms of acute respiratory infection;
* 49 per cent more likely to have never attended school;
* 47 per cent more likely to be out of primary school, 33 per cent more likely to be out of lower-secondary school and 27 per cent more likely to be out of upper secondary school;
* 51 per cent more likely to feel unhappy;
* 41 per cent more likely to feel discriminated against;
* 32 per cent more likely to experience severe corporal punishment.
However, the disability experience varies greatly. The analysis demonstrates that there is a spectrum of risks and outcomes depending on the type of disability, where the child lives, and what services they can access.
This highlights the importance of designing targeted solutions to address inequities.
Access to education is one of several subjects examined in the report. Despite widespread agreement on the importance of education, children with disabilities are still falling behind.
The report finds children with difficulty communicating and caring for themselves are the most likely to be out of school, regardless of education level.
Out-of-school rates are higher among children with multiple disabilities and disparities become even more significant when the severity of the disability is taken into account.
“Inclusive education cannot be considered a luxury. For far too long, children with disabilities have been excluded from society in a way that no child ever should be. My lived experience as a woman with disabilities supports that statement,” says Maria Alexandrova, 20, a UNICEF youth advocate for inclusive education from Bulgaria.
“No child, especially the most vulnerable, should have to fight for their basic human rights alone. We need governments, stakeholders and NGOs to ensure children with disabilities have equal, inclusive access to education.”
UNICEF works with partners at global and local levels to help realize the rights of children with disabilities. All children, including those with disabilities, must have a say in the issues that affect their lives, and be provided with the opportunity to realise their potential and claim their rights. UNICEF is calling on governments to:
Provide children with disabilities with equal opportunities. Governments must work together with persons with disabilities to eliminate the physical, communication and attitudinal barrriers that keep them out of society, and ensure birth registration; inclusive health, nutrition, and water services; equitable education; and access to assistive technologies. They must also work to eradicate stigma and discrimination across communities.
Consult persons with disabilities and consider the full range of disabilities, as well as the specific needs of children and their families, when providing inclusive services and equitable quality education. This includes responsive caregiving and family friendly policies, mental health and psychosocial support, and protection from abuse and neglect.
The analysis seeks to increase the inclusion of the 240 million children and young people with disabilities worldwide by ensuring they are counted, consulted and considered in decision-making.
The new global estimate for the number of children with disabilities is higher than previous estimates, and is based on a more meaningful and inclusive understanding of disabilities, which considers difficulties across several domains of functioning.
“Exclusion is often the consequence of invisibility,” said Fore. “We have not had reliable data on the number of children with disabilities for the longest time. When we fail to count, consider and consult with these children, we are failing to help them reach their vast potential.”

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To end poverty, invest in children
by Olivier De Schutter
UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Oct. 2021
‘Poor children are deprived of their childhoods,’ said a woman from a marginalised neighbourhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a dialogue organised by ATD Fourth World.
‘We become adults too early,’ said another woman, from Luxembourg. In low-income households, children start to work early and they often assume heavy responsibilities at an age when days should be about learning, playing and dreaming.
Children born into disadvantaged families are most likely to live in poverty when they grow up. A study in the United States found that children who experienced poverty at any point during childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 than those who had never been poor. The longer a child lived in poverty, the study found, the greater the risk of being poor in adulthood.
If the persistence of poverty is significantly entrenched in rich countries, it is even more alarming in the developing world. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that in Nordic countries it would take at least four generations for those born in low-income households to reach the mean income in their society; yet in emerging countries, such as Brazil, Colombia or South Africa, this would take up to nine or even more generations.
Profound effects
Poverty has profound effects on babies—on their health, their emotional development and their chances of access to higher education. Public-health specialists warn that adults with an early experience of poverty during childhood are at greater risk of developing hypertension or chronic inflammation, due to the stress experienced by their family.
In England, the difference in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest deciles of children born between 2014 and 2016 is 9.3 years for males and 7.3 for females. Between 2003 and 2018, one in three premature deaths were attributable to neighbourhood deprivation: if everyone had the same risk of mortality as those on high incomes, almost 900,000 premature deaths in England would have been prevented.
And children are disproportionately affected by poverty: they are twice as likely as adults to be living in extreme and multidimensional poverty. Before the pandemic, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that half of all those living in poverty in low- and middle-income countries were younger than 18.
Another study reported that an average of one in seven children in the OECD countries lived in income-poor families and that their numbers had been increasing, highlighting growing inequalities.
Moreover, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, and Save the Children estimate that 1.2 billion children worldwide are now multidimensionally poor, deprived in critical areas such as nutrition, health, housing and education—a 15 per cent increase since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.
In a relatively wealthy country such as the United Kingdom, a third of children now live below the poverty line—defined as being in a household earning less than 60 per cent of median income.
Many solutions
Societies do not have to treat the younger generation this way. People in poverty themselves propose many solutions, from child healthcare to parental support. During a dialogue on the persistence of poverty, a woman from Bolivia said:
I think it would be good to create centres—run by the state, for example—where children would be welcomed. There are no places to bring our children, only paid day care centres with limited opening hours. We leave in the morning and we come back at night. Sometimes, we work 24 hours a day.
Affordable and easily accessible childcare also significantly raises women’s employment prospects, and thus the ability of households to improve their standard of living—and, in turn, to commit to education. Maternity benefits lead to more time being spent with newborn children, leading to a 3 per cent decrease in their high-school dropout rates and a 5 per cent increase in wages by age 30.
It is possible to help children escape the cycle of poverty, while keeping them within their own family. Even if the stress of poverty on the household may have severe impacts on the child, including on brain development, these are not inevitable and can be reversed: paediatricians have shown that programmes supporting parental engagement and relational health can effectively buffer the chronic stress of poverty.
Investing in childhood
Investing in early childhood is not only a caring way to welcome babies to the world. It also strengthens society while, as noted by the health economist Martin Knapp, reducing the need for costly downstream social spending. Having followed birth cohorts in the UK from 1946, 1958 and 1970, he saw that the damage done by not treating mental ill-health persisted throughout life: ‘Programmes like anti-bullying schemes in schools pay for themselves 120 times over.’
The economist James Heckman however stresses the early:
Starting at age three or four is too little too late, as it fails to recognise that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.
His tireless efforts to demonstrate the returns on investment in early childhood education and care were rewarded with a Nobel prize.
For organisations combating poverty, this implies a radical change in mindset. ‘Society should allow children to develop their capacities and allow people in poverty to give the best of themselves. For this to happen, we need society to change its way of perceiving people in poverty,’ said a woman from Guatemala during the ATD Fourth World dialogue.
Supporting children at a very early age has benefits at many levels: it creates a stronger society, with better education, better health and more widely shared prosperity. If we are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty, we should start with investing in children.

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