"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security." - Invisible Children
Demographics of Invisibility
When marginalized children are struggling against the socioeconomic factors dictating their lives, the effect of external variables can be especially devastating. The impact of natural disasters is amplified among the most vulnerable. Natural or manmade disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, industrial accidents such as Bhopal or Chernobyl, and so on – create immediate risks in protection, nutrition, health and access to education. In some instances, given the absence of regular social structures, children are targeted by traffickers or face exploitative labor. Pandemic diseases and outbreaks that spread in the wake of such disasters take a disproportionate toll on the most marginalized, who most often lack access to quality medicines, medical care and secure sources of food and water necessary to build immunity.
In an emergency, children are among those most vulnerable to the loss of food, shelter, health care, education and age-appropriate psychosocial support services. The risk of violence, including sexual violence, increases when family protection and social structures break down as they do during conflict and disasters. Many children face psychological trauma from dealing with death, injury, displacement, destruction of their home or school, and the loss of services. [i]
Haiti, a nation beset by social, economic, political and natural upheavals, is a prime example. Almost half of Haiti’s population is under the age of 18, and suffers the highest infant and child mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. The tottering infrastructure and rampant poverty in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake deepened the suffering of young people. Many were orphaned or badly injured. Others, with their families scattered, were forced to live on the streets.[ii]
Most of those who lost contact with their families after the earthquake ended up in orphanages, many of which were unlicensed, and some of which were created virtually overnight to capitalize on the infusion of international relief aid. Allegations of physical and sexual abuse are common.
Even prior to the earthquake, child abuse and trafficking posed major threats. Unable to care for their children, many desperate mothers abandoned their newborn babies at the hospital, or turned their older children onto the streets.[iii] Impoverished families sent their children to be servants for wealthy families, while others were targeted by traffickers. The earthquake only increased these tendencies.
The impact of shifting climate trends over time is difficult to predict, although we have begun to see the potential effects of global warming, altered wind patterns and changing ocean currents. What we have seen so far does not bode well for children in extreme poverty.
Climatic shifts have contributed to drought in East and Central Africa, as well as the southern United States. Drought claims lives and leads to food shortages as regional capacity to feed itself withers along with thirsty crops. Food shortages have accentuated existing conflicts as far back as the Biafran secessionist war in Nigeria in the late 1960s and the Bangladeshi independence movement in the early 1970s. The more recent images from Sudan, Chad and Somalia underscore the relationship between civil violence and food shortages.
The recent upsurge in violent storms has brought flooding and water-related damages to many countries. The impact of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 in the Philippines will be felt for an entire generation as that nation seeks to rebuild both a physical infrastructure and its network of social services, leaving the most vulnerable children at even higher risk. The 2012 floods in Pakistan had a similar impact. Waterborne diseases spread without check, and as many as half a million children under the age of five remained at risk for disease. Essentials such as water and vaccinations against preventable diseases, already in short supply, became harder to find, exacerbating situations that were already desperate.[iv]
Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast with a fury that shattered communities which have yet to rebuild completely. More than 300,000 school-aged children in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were displaced, many to communities and schools that were demographically dissimilar to what they had known. African American students from New Orleans, for example, where 95% of those in school were of their own race and background, often found themselves as minorities in new school districts that were sometimes less than welcoming. Many reported being harassed due to negative stereotypes of Katrina evacuees.[v]
Temporary housing for Katrina families created its own problems. Unsafe and overcrowded Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer encampments created stresses and health issues that affected school performance. Financial instability, transportation issues and lost records compounded feelings of isolation. And because everyone in the region was impacted by Katrina – including teachers, close friends, churches and extended family – emotional support networks were also shredded.[vi]
Outbreaks and Pandemics
In many parts of the world, outbreaks and pandemics – some easily treatable – have exerted a disproportionate impact on children.
In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS has punched holes in entire generations, devastating social infrastructures, splintering families and putting children at risk of abandonment, trafficking and exploitation. More than 17 million young people have lost parents to this disease alone, with 11.6 million of these orphans in Africa.[vii] These children often must assume immense familial responsibilities and most face some level of displacement from their home communities.
HIV/AIDS has no regard for age, infecting children as readily as adults. In Africa, 3.3 million children under age 15 carry the disease, more than 90% of all young people infected globally.[viii] Still, other parts of the globe have felt the impact of the disease’s stubborn presence. Nearly a quarter million children under the age of 15 in Southeast Asia are living with HIV, and the rate of infection is increasing in the Caribbean.[ix]
But despite the propensity to direct attention to the impact of HIV/AIDS, other pandemics continue to rage globally to the detriment of the vulnerable young. Pneumonia remains the leading cause of death worldwide for children under the age of five. Malaria remains a force in remote low-income areas, again disproportionately impacting the very young.[x] Polio, once virtually eradicated, is making a comeback in areas of civil conflict, including Pakistan, which saw a sharp increase to 198 cases in 2011 and more likely to surface as immunization efforts have been targeted by the Taliban for political reasons, leaving hundreds of thousands of children without protection against the disease.[xi] A similar resurgence is occurring in Syria, with clusters of infected, paralyzed children showing up in war-ravaged cities.[xii]
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake triggered a cholera outbreak that has yet to be stemmed, and has in fact spread to other countries in the region, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico. Four years on, with insufficient contributions to underwrite cholera vaccinations or rebuild the country’s water and sanitation systems, the UN is still seeking ways to check the disease.[xiii] But Haiti is not alone: political instability in Zimbabwe over the last decade compromised the maintenance of water and sanitation systems to the point that cholera broke out in densely populated areas, and even spread to South Africa.[xiv] The disease has also made a prolonged appearance in the slums of Conakry, Liberia, and Freetown, Sierra Leone because of inadequate water and sanitation systems.[xv]
[i] UNICEF, 2009. Progress for Children: A report card on child protection, Report No. 8, UNICEF, New York, p. 20.
[v] Olivia Golden, “Young People After Katrina: A Proposal to Heal the Damage and Create Opportunity in New Orleans,” After Katrina, The Urban Institute, February 2006, pp. 3-5; http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/900920_young_children.pdf
[vi] Olivia Golden, “Young People After Katrina: A Proposal to Heal the Damage and Create Opportunity in New Orleans,” After Katrina, The Urban Institute, February 2006, pp. 3-5; http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/900920_young_children.pdf
[ix] UNICEF. (2013, May). State of the World's Children Report 2013. 52, p. 112-114. Retrieved October 19, 2013, from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf
[xi] William Marx, “Pakistan’s Polio War, Financial Times, June 7, 2013; http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/fe901856-ce40-11e2-a13e-00144feab7de.html#slide0
[xii] Rick Gladstone, “UN, Fearing Polio Epidemic in Syria, Moves to Vaccinate Millions of Children,” New York Times, October 25, 2013; http://www.nytimes,com/2013/10/26/world/middleeast/syria-polio-epidemic.html.
[xiii] Randal Archibald and Somini Sengupta, “UN Struggles to Stem Haiti Cholera Epidemic,” New York Times, April 19, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/world/americas/un-struggles-to-stem-haiti-cholera-epidemic.html
[xv] Adam Nossiter, “Cholera Epidemic envelops Coastal Slums in West Africa,” New York Times, August 23, 2012; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/world/africa/cholera-epidemic-envelops-coastal-slums-in-west-africa.html