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Statistics of a world in suffering

37,000 under-fives die of disease every day 73 million children are workers 585,000 women die in labour each year

Tuesday 11 June 1996 23:02 BST

Get pregnant in the developing world, and your chances of dying or being disabled as a result are one in four.

If your child survives the pregnancy and labour, then he or she still has a one-in-10 chance of dying by the age of five.

Survive all this and your child's chances of going on to join the world's army of child labourers are around one in 10 in Asia and one in four in Africa.

These are just some of the facts of life and death which are described in two reports published this week: The Progress of Nations, Unicef's annual review of the welfare of the world's children, and Child Labour, a discussion document which the International Labour Office is putting before labour ministers from 173 countries in Geneva today.

Global statistics of the kind quoted are necessarily impressionistic, broad brush-strokes rather than precise calculations. But research is continuous and so occasionally the broad figures have to be revised.

For some years, the generally accepted figure for maternal deaths has been half a million a year.

But new research has prompted the United Nations Children's Fund to adjust this figure upwards to 585,000. As a result, and in view of the obvious fact that welfare of mother and infant are inseparable, the primary focus of the latest Unicef report is on what it calls this "unspoken tragedy".

Behind the cold figures lies horror. Perhaps 140,000 women die in their teens or 20s of internal bleeding.

Around 75,000 die having attempted an abortion - some 50,000 desperate women and girls try this every day.

Most survive, but with the legacy of some crippling disease. Another 75,000 die with brain and kidney damage in the convulsions of eclampsia, described by one survivor as the worst imaginable feeling in the world

The report also examines malnutrition amongst children. It confounds those who assume that the record of Africa is the worst in the world.

There are 86 million children under five who are malnourished in South Asia (50 per cent of all under-fives), as against 32 million (25 per cent) in sub-Saharan Africa. This is partly a result of a whole mix of cultural attitudes and assumptions in South Asia which prevents mothers from being able to look after their children properly. Women are subordinated in most of the world, the report says, but in South Asia, the subordination is of a different order altogether, with the obvious consequences for the quality of life of mother and child.

"However much a mother may love her children, it is all but impossible for her to provide high-quality childcare if she herself is poor and oppressed, illiterate and uninformed, anaemic and unhealthy, has five or six other children, lives in a slum or shanty, has neither clean water nor safe sanitation, nor support from health services, nor her society, nor the father of her children."

It is poverty, too, which ensures that 37,000 children under five die every day, mostly from five diseases for which we long ago discovered cheap cures: measles, diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia and malnutrition.

"Children in rich countries do not die from the common, preventable diseases of childhood," says the Unicef report. "Children in poor countries do."

The crushing weight of poverty also adds to the pressure on families to send their children out to work at the earliest opportunity.

"Poverty is the single greatest force which creates the flow of children into the workplace," says the ILO. "It forces many children to work full- time for their own and their families' survival."

The ILO has campaigned to end child labour since it was founded in 1919. And with 73 million children between 10 and 14 economically active in 1995 - 13.2 per cent of the total number of 10-14s - the campaign goes on. While Asian children make up about half of these figures - sometimes as slaves, sometimes as part of a miserably exploited industrial workforce - Africa comes out worst.

One African child in three is engaged in economic activity. Most of these are working on the land, and it is hard work: a child can be made to run 15 miles each day, leading a team of animals up and down a pumping track to feed a herd from a well.

It is the extremely arduous nature of rural labour that helps explain why cities attract so many street children.

The scale of migration is directly linked to the severity of working conditions in rural areas. Even after experiencing the horrors of life as one of the thousands of street children in, say, Nairobi, children can still prefer these conditions to those in the rural areas.

t Child Labour: What is to be done? ILO, Vincent House, Vincent Square, London SW1P 2NB. The Progress of Nations. Unicef, 55 Lincolns Inn Fields, London WC2A 3NB.

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