Social exclusion is their lot

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

UNICEF’S The State of the World’s Children, 2006 is titled “Excluded and Invisible”. The authors of the report define those children as excluded and invisible who are deemed to be at risk of missing out on an environment that protects them from violence, abuse and exploitation.

Those children are also considered to be excluded if they are unable to access essential services in a way that threatens their ability to participate fully in society in the future. Keeping this definition in mind one wonders how many children in Pakistan would qualify as ‘excluded’.

In the physical sense, children’s “visibility” in our society is very high. You see them everywhere, even in places where they should not be seen — on the streets, in workplaces, in garbage dumps, and even in battle zones. With 4.7 million children born every year and nearly 71 million Pakistanis being under 18 years of age (about a third of them under five) it is not surprising that the physical presence of children is so noticeable. Yet a huge majority of them qualify as being defined as excluded.

The Unicef report is quite clear that when it refers to exclusion it means social exclusion which is a multidimensional concept. It includes the deprivation of economic, social, gender, cultural and political rights and does not refer to material poverty alone. In the market driven society of today, material affluence tends to make a lot of difference in a person aspiring to improve his social, political and legal status. But the problem is that material poverty generally goes hand in hand with an individual’s capacity to get his rights enforced. Is it not the rich who seem to get all the benefits that the society and the state have to offer the citizens?

Thus when we speak of a child being denied his basic rights as recognised by the International Convention on the Rights of a Child we know that the worst sufferers are the children of the poor. The fact is that a child denied access to education and health care can never hope to participate fully in society when he is an adult. The chances are that his children may not be able to do any better either. Thus the cycle of exclusion is perpetuated from one generation to the next.

Our children live in difficult times. There were the days when it was universally considered the duty of the state to provide every child basic education. Of course Pakistan failed to fulfil its responsibility but at least it recognised its responsibility — even if verbally — and strove — even though weakly — to do something in that direction. But now the state’s responsibility in the education and health sectors has virtually been abandoned. The private sector has been encouraged to enter the field in a big way, with the state acting at the most as a facilitator.

How has this affected our children? First of all, not all of them are enrolled in school. According to Unicef, 56 per cent of the children are enrolled in primary school. But figures can be deceptive. The quality of education being imparted to most of these children will hardly open meaningful avenues for them to improve their life situation. Besides most of them do not study beyond primary/middle school and lacking any further training or skills they have no chance of enhancing their capacity significantly to find jobs that will raise their status.

In terms of health care the situation is no different. The dismal state of health of the children shows in the high number of underweight and stunted children under five years of age and the high infant and under-five mortality rates. Although it is not recognised generally, poor health has a negatively effect on the school performance of children, their capacity to learn and their productivity in later life. At this rate, can the socially excluded of today ever hope to overcome their exclusion?

A very pertinent question that can be asked is what are the root causes of exclusion? The Unicef report identifies them at the national level as poverty, weak governance, armed conflict and HIV/Aid. The report admits that inequality, which is obscured in the national averages generally cited, is a major cause of exclusion. But if one looks more closely into the issue it will be found that inequality is at the root cause of the malaise. Because some people have been pushed to the bottom of the heap socially they are also reduced to poverty, are the worst victims of poor governance, are vulnerable to armed conflict and are hit by Aids more easily than those of a higher social status.

The main obstacle in the way of removing these inequities is the inequity itself. Those who control power are the privileged ones who have always derived many advantages from their elitist status. Why would they want to forego the advantages they have traditionally enjoyed when they feel no compulsion for it?

If the intelligentsia is really intelligent it will find one solid reason for doing away with this inequality that characterises our system. It is not possible to keep the children of today suppressed for ever. The advancements in communication technology and the little bit of education that has been imparted to the people has created the awareness in them of what they are missing out. They have their own aspirations and ambitions. They are, unlike the children of yesterday, unwilling to accept defeat. Arif Hasan, the chairman of the Urban Resource Centre and the OPP-RTI, is of the opinion that if the altered needs of the youth are not met, Karachi will never become free of conflict. He graphically describes how the old order is being destroyed and a new one emerging that derives its information, education, entertainment and, one may add, aspiration from television — that is the satellite and cable. They have their demands and will want them to be met.

The children of today are being fed on a heavy diet of television which not only exposes them to crime and violence. It also takes them into the luxurious houses of the rich and the famous, which they may never see in real life. They are taken to the campuses of the elitist universities the portals of which they can never dream of entering. They see the ‘five-star’ hospitals where the rich are treated in luxury when they fall ill. And above all, television constantly exposes them to the affluent lifestyle of the rich whose life is comfortable beyond belief — they don’t ever experience power breakdowns or water shortages. It may not actually be that way but that is how TV projects it.

A time will come when the rising expectations of the youth and their unmet needs will lead to a violent reaction. It is this that has to be avoided and therefore the need to remove inequities from society and bring those millions of children in Pakistan who are excluded and invisible within the purview of social inclusion.