1 in 4 children miss out on childhood, according to a new ranking

Children diligently taking notes in a classroom in Oudomxay province, Laos. Photo by: Bart Verweij / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

A new index of childhood experiences around the world could help change the way the American public thinks about foreign aid, its authors hope.

The first End of Childhood Index, launched by Save the Children on Wednesday, compares data from 172 countries on indicators such as children’s health, education and protection status.

The NGO says these measures demonstrate the extent to which a country’s children get to experience childhood.

It finds that at least 700 million children worldwide, or one in four, have had their childhoods cut short for a variety of reasons, ranging from extreme violence and conflict to early marriage, child labor or poor health and malnutrition.

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Norway, Slovenia and Finland top the rankings, while Mali, Angola and Niger come bottom. The United States ranks in 36th place — just one position higher than Russia.

While the highest and lowest scorers map fairly consistently against alternative poverty indices — such as the United Nations’ Human Development Index — the ranking breaks new ground in its conceptual framework, according to Michael Klosson, vice president of policy and humanitarian response at Save the Children.

“These statistics go beyond just numbers. The idea of childhoods being stolen is something people can immediately connect with and we hope it will help get the conversation moving forward in America and abroad,” he said.

Devex spoke to Klosson about the NGO’s findings and the vision behind it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How is the End of Childhood Index different from other indices?

In the past, we looked at factors affecting mothers through an annual State of the World’s Mothers report. This is the first time Save the Children has done this with children.

We wanted to come up with a novel way of drawing attention to and talking about the opportunities and challenges children around the world face.

What this index really represents is an effort to try and take a lot of different challenges that groups of children are facing — such as child marriage, conflict, lack of education and poor health — and put it together in an easily understandable format. There are a lot of different statistics out there and the information can be hard to absorb, so we wanted to put it all in a framework that looks at what robs a child of their childhood.

What are the potential implications of the index?

The real impact of the index comes when you call out things that have a significant impact on childhood around the world, such as stunting and malnutrition, but that currently don’t get enough attention. The index clearly shows that stunting is a huge issue and is one that will be compounded with Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria facing famine.

The conceptual framework of the index can also help make a stronger case for foreign assistance by creating a narrative that resonates with the public. We know from our own research that people have a hard time grasping foreign aid and how much is spent when it’s discussed in abstract terms. A recent poll conducted by Save the Children showed that if you ask people cold about investing in foreign aid you get a lackluster response, but if you ask them whether they think every child deserves to have a childhood, that resonates and the numbers sky rocket.

This is especially timely at the moment with the proposed U.S. foreign assistance cuts. It’s clear from the index data that the proposed 32 percent cut to the U.S. development budget is going to shorten childhoods in developing countries.

What were the biggest surprises in the data?

The U.S. had a surprisingly low ranking, coming 36th overall. To better understand this, Save the Children also conducted a state-by-state analysis, finding that childhood is most intact in New Hampshire, followed by Massachusetts, while it is most threatened in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

An estimated 750,000 U.S. children drop out before graduating high school each year, while more than 541,000 children live in households with severe food insecurity, and they experience hunger regularly. Furthermore, the number of babies born to teenage mothers was 230,000 in 2015.

What are the index report’s recommendations?

There are a number of concrete recommendations put forward in the report, but they can be boiled down into three main messages.

First, we are calling on government and communities to invest more and mobilize the resources needed to address these childhood enders.

Second is a call to ensure that all children are treated equally; to end discriminatory policies and norms such those that deny girls or other kids access to school or opportunities due to their gender or ethnicity.

The third recommendation is about accountability — making sure governments have systems in place to collect data and really track what’s going on.  

Governments have signed up to some very bold goals within the Sustainable Development Agenda. But we are asking them to set interim targets, so that instead of waiting until 2030 to see if they’ve been successful, they can aim for stepping stone targets along the way.

We will also be launching a global petition, which will be presented at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

What’s next for the index?

Save the Children plans to publish the report every year, so this is a baseline from which to compare countries’ performance year on year.  

The next iteration of the report will also disaggregate the data by gender and age because we think we can say with confidence that these 700 million children who are losing out on childhood are not random; there are underlying contributing factors and it has a lot to do with where they are born and who they are. Girls, refugee children and kids from ethnic minorities are particularly at risk.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.