NEW YORK — UNICEF recently released a report concerning child rights in South Asia. The report is part of UNICEF’s initiatives marking global progress made in securing the rights of children as part of the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some progress has been made in bettering the lives of children in South Asia; however, it significantly lags behind other regions as a whole. Many of the region’s statistics are comparable to child rights statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa, another region where progress in ensuring the rights of children has been slow.
The first four sections of the report discussed imbalanced sex ratios, neonatal mortality and the need for skilled birth attendants, the importance of birth registration and nutrition within the first two years of a child’s life. The last four sections address the issues of immunization, education, open defecation and child marriage.
Approximately eight million newborns in South Asia are not immunized with the greatest number of unimmunized children residing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Children go unimmunized largely because families are unaware of the importance of immunizing their children and because, logistically, immunization operations are challenging and require infrastructure and resources that many areas—especially remote rural areas—lack.
The campaign to eradicate polio has been one of the most successful immunization campaigns in South Asia, with six countries achieving the Polio-Free Certification in 2014. The lack of polio vaccinations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, has raised concerns about the potential spread of the disease back into areas which are currently polio-free.
Aside from polio vaccinations, Pakistan is making strides in immunizing children for pneumonia, which is responsible for about 20 percent of the 350,000 infant deaths in the country.
According to the report, “the only region in the world with more out-of-school children than South Asia is sub-Saharan Africa.” In absolute number, approximately 36.4 million children in the region are not in school. School enrollment rates have increased to 90 percent since 1990, when they were at 75 percent, which is a significant 15 percent increase. A majority of the countries in South Asia have seen significant progress in expanding access to education, although tackling gender disparities in enrollment rates remain a challenge, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, poverty is a factor in low enrollment rates. Conflict and natural disasters such as the outbreak of violence in 2009 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and the cyclones in 2007 and 2009 in Bangladesh also prevent children from attending school. Even children who attend and complete school have trouble meeting minimum learning standards as the quality of education they receive is far below standards in other regions of the world.
To counter the inadequate standards of education, Bangladesh in conjunction with several NGOs operates a large non-formal education system that compliments formal education in order to raise educational and literacy standards not only for children but also young people and adults. India has also set up special schools called Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, or KGBVs, which are single-sex girls’ only schools that encourage girls, especially those from marginalized social groups, to complete primary and secondary school.
7) Open Defecation
Open defecation is a common and socially acceptable practice in a majority of South Asia. Toilets are considered unclean and dirty due to poor sanitation practices and the fact that public bathrooms are not cleaned as often as they should be, therefore open defecation is socially acceptable. Such practices put people, especially women and girls at risk however and only perpetuate poor sanitation practices that contaminate water sources and increase the spread of disease.
Bangladesh and Nepal have been successful in almost completely eliminating the practice by implementing better sanitation practices and educating populations about the negative health effects of open defecation. Surprisingly, people in the region cited safety and privacy as the reasons for wanting indoor plumbing and a toilet rather than the fact that toilets and good sanitation systems help prevent diarrheal disease.
8) Child Marriage
In South Asia, 46 percent of girls marry before their 18th birthday and 18 percent marry before their 15th birthday. Worldwide South Asia accounts for a third of the total number of girls that are married before they turn 18. The wealth disparity in South Asia countries is a major factor for the high prevalence of child marriage in the region as only 18 percent of girls from rich families become child brides, while 72 percent of girls from poor families become child brides.
In India, there are currently 2,850 Adolescent Girls Groups that educate girls and their families about the detrimental effects of child marriage and which have been successful in preventing child marriages, returning girls to school and empowering women to become involved in leadership positions and decision-making institutions. Child clubs in Nepal have also used similar tactics to intervene and prevent child marriages from taking place.
While the UNICEF reports points out glaring inequalities in child rights in South Asia, it also focuses in each section on the improvements and progress that has been made within the last 25 years which have made a difference in children’s lives across the region. Progress may be slow, but UNICEF believes that the commitment that governments have shown so far to improving the lives of children in the region is promising.
– Erin Sullivan