India is always a fascinating place for a visit to see Save the Children’s programs, but the one I made earlier this month was even more so than usual. I was meeting with Save the Children staff from all over the world to discuss key learnings from our urban programs. Since our founding almost 100 years ago, Save the Children’s focus has been on serving children and families in rural areas who have traditionally been the most marginalized, with the worst outcomes for kids in terms of health, education and abuse. But as populations shift, more and more disadvantaged families are moving to cities to try to lift their standard of living. In 2007 for the first time in recorded history, the number of people living in urban settings equaled those living in rural areas. As of 2014, 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. By 2050, it is expected that this percentage will grow to 66 percent. And now many of the worst statistics for children are found in urban slums. This data is often masked by the better averages in cities and, as the gap between rich and poor widens, the poorest children are suffering in terms of surviving and thriving.
For example, in India, more than 8 million children under the age of 6 live in slums and 71 percent of deprived urban children under 5 suffer from anemia. More than 54 percent of households in urban slums do not have toilets and public facilities are unusable due to lack of maintenance, leading to poor sanitary conditions, increasing children’s chances of getting sick and decreasing their chances for a healthy start. In areas of rapid and unplanned urban expansion, informal settlements often lack many of the basic services that city dwellers typically enjoy, such as electricity, clean water and sanitation, transportation, education and healthcare. In addition, the urban poor face higher food costs and a constant threat of eviction, removal and confiscation of goods.
Save the Children is working hard to shift our work to focus on both rural and urban settings – wherever the most deprived children find themselves. As part of my recent trip, I witnessed a wide variety of urban programs operating in Delhi. This included a heartbreaking program that focuses on female sex workers. While the government does not want NGOs distributing condoms and educating sex workers on HIV/AIDS, they also don’t want to disclose the ages of these women. Sadly, however, many I met were clearly teenagers. In fact, several looked no older than my own 13 year old daughter. They spoke freely to us about the challenges of making a living by selling their bodies to men, some living on the streets and some with their families while hiding their real jobs from them. We visited a bridge under which men frequent to seek sex from many of these women, in clear view of a police check point. It was a terrifying place, full of dark spaces and garbage and, based on the men watching us from the bank of the filthy stream that ran through it, clearly this was a well-known location for sex. Not only is being forced to sell themselves horribly demeaning for these young girls, but it’s extremely dangerous as well.
The girls we met made tiny sums of money, most of which had to go for food or were given to their families for rent and other expenses. They dreamed of going back to school some day and a few were able to stay in school at least part-time. When we asked them what they wanted to do when they grow up, like any teenage girl, they had dreams of being teachers, dancers and even doctors. Of course for many it is unlikely these dreams will ever come true. But my prayers went out to them that hopefully a few would make it.
The teeming city of Delhi has literally hundreds of thousands of children living in extreme poverty, in some of the worst circumstances you can imagine. There are complicated issues of land ownership, municipal laws and political corruption to overcome, but there is also the promise of better infrastructure, more services and more partners with which to create change for these children and their families. As Save the Children looks to the future, our efforts for and with urban children will be key in delivering a better world for kids, no matter where they live.