The state of the world’s children

By Zubeida Mustafa

How much do we love our children? The conventional wisdom holds that oriental societies show greater affection and concern for their young ones than the industrialised nations of the west where parents are too involved in the rat race. This might be true in the individual family context, but at the wider social and institutional level not all Third World countries have a uniform track record in their treatment of children.

Without going into the usual homilies of children need to be looked after because they are the wealth of the nation and the citizens of tomorrow, one can state without fear of contradiction that the approach a society adopts vis-a-vis its children is a measure of its social/political maturity. It is also indicative of the level of civilisation it has achieved. Contrary to popular belief, the status of the child in a country is not determined by its economic resources or the degree of its development UNICEF’s latest report The State of the World’s Children 1995 more than proves this point.

Using the U-5MR (under-five mortality rate) as the criterion to rank countries, UNICEF makes it possible to compare the performance of societies. The painful fact which emerges very clearly is that Pakistan with a higher per capita in’-ime than many others has done worse than them in looking after its children. What is most disconcerting is that the political and social commitment and the concomitant effort which are so essential to make progress in upgrading the quality of life of the child are totally missing in our case.

Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh which ranked below Pakistan five years ago have pulled themselves up and are way ahead of us today. In 1990 we ranked 33rd in ascending order, that is 32 countries had a higher child mortality rate than Pakistan. Bangladesh stood 22nd and Nepal was 18th. The latest report shows Bangladesh and Nepal as ranking 39th and 38th respectively. Pakistan continues to be 33rd India has also shown some progress.Its ranking went up from 37th in 1990 to 40th in 1995. In 1993, the child
mortality rate of the four states n a m e l y B a n g l a d e s h Nepal, India and Pakistan was 122,128, 122 and 137 per 1000 live births respectively And yet, of these countries Pakistan has the most impressive economic indicators.Its per capita GNP in 1992 was 420 dollars, when the corresponding figures for B a n g l a d e s h , Nepal and India were only 220, 170 and 310 respsctwety.

The percentage of the population living below the absolute poverty line was higher (much higher in
the case of Bangladesh) in these three countries as compared with Pakistan Nevertheless, their financial constraints notwithstanding the first three performed better in childcare

How would one explain this phenomenon? As the UNICEF report states, U-5MR is determined by a wide variety of inputs such as health and nutrition of mothers, immunisation and ORT use level, safe water supply, sanitation, and the availability of health care. In other words the level of social development
of a people manifests itself in the form of the child mortality rate because children are the most vulnerable segment of a population and the impact on them of any negligence is the greatest Woefully, it is this aspect of life which is the most neglected in Pakistan. •

But another factor which has a powerful impact on children and which the UNICEF report notes not sufficiently emphatically is the degree of empowerment of women, to use the Cairo summit’s
phrase. It is only when women have been empowered to decide when to become pregnant (through greater
equality in decision-making and higher quality family planning services) that, the fertility rate- falls. This has a direct impact on child mortality since the mothers are better equipped to take care of their children. Of course conversely,lower child mortality gives parents the confidence to have fewer children.


It is hardly a coincidence that Pakistan has the highest population growth rate and crude birth rate and the lowest contraceptive prevalence rate as compared with Bangladesh, Nepal and India. The following statistics are most revealing If we want to save our children, we will have to save our women. It is plain that our society’s reluctance to raise the status of women — in plain words, to empower them — that is pulling us down the ladder of social development. It is time this issue was addressed in real earnest before the fabric of our society disintegrates altogether

Source: Dawn24 January 1995