We tend to think of childhood as a precious, sheltered time of learning, growing, and playing. But millions of children face a very different reality. As Jason Beaubien reports for NPR, Save the Children has released a report on the easiest and hardest places to be a kid, highlighting the vastly disparate experiences of children across the globe.
Using data from the United Nations and governmental sources, Save the Children ranked 172 countries based on the prevalence of eight “childhood enders,” or factors that negatively impact a child’s wellbeing: child mortality rates, incidence of stunted growth (an indicator of severe malnourishment), the percentage of children who do not attend school, the percentage of children who are engaged in labor, adolescent marriage rates, adolescent birth rates, the percentage of the population displaced by conflict, and child homicide rates.
European countries that invest heavily in healthcare and education were ranked among the top index of places where childhood is least threatened. Norway, which was recently named the happiest place on Earth, tied for first place with Slovenia. They are followed by Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, and Italy. Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, and South Korea tied for 10th place on the list, with South Korea being the only non-European country to make it into the top tier.
The ten places where childhood was found to be most threatened were overwhelmingly conflict-ridden, impoverished countries in Central and West Africa. At the bottom of the list, Sierra Leone and Guinea tied at spot 163, followed by Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Central African Republic, Mali, Angola and Niger in last place, meaning it is the least livable nation for little ones.
It isn’t exactly surprising that children fare better in wealthy European nations than they do in developing African ones. But Robert Black, director of international programs at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Beaubien that it is “important that Save the Children and others keep bringing it up and putting it before the public because it can be forgotten, ignored or passed over amidst the news of the day."
And while the ranking reveals a stark gap between rich and poor countries when it comes to child welfare, the divide isn’t entirely neat. The United States, for instance, ranked 36th on the list, dragged down by factors like high infant mortality rates and high adolescent birth rates. Ben Paynter of Fast Company reports that in the U.S. “[m]ore than 23,000 babies still die at less than a year old, with over 540,000 growing up with food insecurity, and another 750,000 dropping out before finishing high school."
At a global level, those numbers are magnified to an alarming degree. An estimated million boys and girls die each year, according to the report, 156 million children under the age of five have stunted growth, and 263 million children do not attend school.
The report suggests a number of practical measures that governments can take to improve the quality of life for their young citizens—such as prioritizing health services for women and children, increasing the legal age to marry, and ending discriminatory policies that prevent children of certain ethnicities or genders from accessing vital services.
“[T]he rights of children from all segments of society must be upheld, and those furthest behind must be reached first,” the report states in its conclusion. “All children deserve a childhood.”