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March 2nd, 2012:

Bambini e Cacciabombardieri – Of Children and Fighter Jets

Nairobi. Bambini di strada preparano la cena, in un'aiuola fra Kibera e il traffico della Ngong Road. Street children cook supper, in a strip of land between Kibera and Ngong Road.

A few days ago, UNICEF released its latest annual report, titled “The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World,” which examines the plight of children and young people living in urban environments.
While presenting the report, UNICEF’s Director General, Anthony Lake, wrote:
“When many of us think of the world’s poorest children, the image that comes readily to mind is that of a child going hungry in a remote rural community in sub-Saharan Africa – as so many are today. But as our report shows with clarity and urgency, millions of children in cities and towns all over the world are also at risk of being left behind. In fact, hundreds of millions of children today live in urban slums, many without access to basic services. We must do more to reach all children in need, wherever they live, wherever they are excluded and left behind. Some might ask whether we can afford to do this, especially at a time of austerity in national budgets and reduced aid allocations. But if we overcome the barriers that have kept these children from the services that they need and that are theirs by right, then millions more will grow up healthy, attend school and live more productive lives.”
This is a rather cold, aseptic foreword, considering the scandalous reality that emerges from the report. Reading through it, we perceive, beyond the numbers, the suffering of millions of children, their tears, and their cries for help. This data should upset us and commit us to the pursuit of radical change.
The data contained in the report makes quite an impression. To note a few observations from the report: there are now more than one billion children and young people – both male and female – living in urban areas. By 2020 the numbers will be close to a billion and a half, and we can deduce that at least half a billion will live in the so-called “informal settlements”, better known as slums or shantytowns.
Cities are now the main theatres for social injustice and inequality, and children are the most vulnerable victims in such situations. Disparities in access to sanitation, education, property rights, protection and a healthy environment are growing rather than diminishing. A third of all children living in urban areas do not officially exist because they were not registered at birth, a percentage that in sub-Saharan Africa touches 50%.
There are 215 million “workers” aged between 5 and 17 years across the world. Among these, 115 million are “employed” in hazardous jobs. In urban and degraded areas, families are unable to pay for the education of their children and choose to send them to work. In 2010 alone, nearly 8 million children died before reaching the age of five, most of them born in slums. The highest rate is recorded in Somalia, at 180 deaths per 1000 live births, while in Nairobi – where two thirds of the population lives in slums – the rate is 151 deaths for each 1000 live births. In the poorest urban neighbourhoods in most large African cities, a litre of water costs 50 times more than it does in the wealthier neighbourhoods. Inadequate access to safe drinking water and the insufficient availability of water for sanitation threatens the health of children living in slums and promotes the spread of various epidemics.
The only partially positive news is that in 2010, fewer children were infected with HIV and developed AIDS compared with the previous years, thanks to improved access to prevention services during pregnancy and lactation. But there is a ticking time bomb ready to explode all over the world: 2.2 million adolescents aged between 10 and 19 years are HIV-positive, and a majority are unaware of their HIV status.
The obvious consequence of the above cited statistics is increased violence in the slums, of which children and teenagers are first the victims and later graduate into perpetrators.
The UNICEF reports continues listing, “with force” as emphasized by the press statement, the actions that need to be taken, the “best practices” to be adopted, the “child-friendly cities” programme that was already launched years ago, and the following set of “five urgent actions”: to understand the nature of poverty and exclusion in urban areas; to identify and remove barriers to the inclusion; to put children first in the context of a wider search for equity in urban planning, infrastructural development, governance and provision of services; to promote collaboration among the urban poor and their governments; and to work together to get the results needed for children.
So the humanitarian tragedy – the suffering of hundreds of millions of children who were already half hidden by the cold figures – is ultimately diluted by the jargon of experts, by words that seem to soothe rather than spur to action. But where are the “best practices” when there are half a billion children living in subhuman conditions and pain!? No, the report seems to say, let us avoid the anger and indignation, we want to convince ourselves that we first know the solutions and that it is just a matter of time before we put them into practice. Indeed, the inadequacy of the proposals in relation to the actual needs takes your breath away.
Will these mild proposals be enough to mobilize us, all of us, because it is only when we all act together that we will be able to find solution? Yet here is the test to show we believe that human beings are one family, that we are all tied to a single destiny. If we could bravely face this challenge and provide education and medical care to these half-billion children suffering around the globe, in twenty years we will have also defeated under-development, environmental degradation, nationalism, racism, war and uncontrolled population growth. Education – true education that makes everyone aware of his or her human dignity and her or his place in creation – is the main road towards improving our future.
Instead, the release of the UNICEF report, important and commendable as it is, seems to have only been an occasion for meetings, conferences, charitable dinners, cocktail parties and more fund raising, at least judging from what was reported in the media. It has been a week and nobody talks about it anymore. We have done our duty, we have reported these terrible things, and now we move on to serious things, seems to be the implication.
Well, let us move on to other serious matters. The Italian government wants to buy 131 F35 fighter jets that cost nearly 150 million Euros each. Based on what logic? Is it logical to invest such huge capital in arms while the cry of the poor in Italy and the rest of the world is becoming more desperate? The cost of one of these bombers could provide education, medical care, future and dignity to several tens of thousands children, ultimately forming conscious and competent citizens. This would contribute much more towards the prevention of possible wars in the future. It would be of much better benefit than investing in a fighter jet.
In the meantime, I recently received a much shorter report from one of the “street workers” of Koinonia in Kibera, the biggest of all slums in Nairobi. It lists all the children who were rescued from the streets last year, and the first comments of the teachers in the schools where they have been placed. The report tells me of the days and nights spent on the streets looking for children in difficulty, and of the small gains made so far: Njiru now trusts the social worker because she has been able to heal his wound; yesterday, Shikuku, the albino boy, finally agreed to play football with the others.
But is it possible that we – people who think that we must invest more in brotherhood and peace than in security walls and war machines – are so few?

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