The growing overweight and climate change also overshadow the future of children in the region.
The advances recorded in the last three decades in Latin America have been substantial, but the region is still the most unequal worldwide and the most violent despite the fact that there are currently no open wars. Violence, poverty and inequality are thus the main challenges facing the 193 million children and adolescents in the region, challenges to which they have the capacity to respond.
Infant mortality of children under 5 years old has been reduced by more than 70 percent, “a fundamental achievement,” said the spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Latin America and the Caribbean, Laurent Duvillier, while In educational matters there have also been considerable advances.
Thus, compared to the 3.4 million children in the region who did not go to primary school in 1998, it has increased to 2.3 million in 2018, of which one million are girls. With regard to secondary education, in 20 years it has gone from 13.5 million to 9.8 million, 4.6 of them girls out of school.
However, there are still 72 million children living in poverty in a region where there is an “immense gap” between rich and poor that hinders the eradication of this scourge by 2030, says Duvillier in an interview with Europa Press. “The most vulnerable are still left out of the system” and are “trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, exclusion and discrimination that is perpetuated from generation to generation,” he denounces.
Another major challenge is that of violence. The region records rates of armed violence that place it at the level of countries at war in other latitudes with 67 adolescent victims every day of homicide and a quarter of the murders of minors worldwide, figures that are certainly “alarming” and that should cause “shame”.
Added to this is also sexual violence, with a million girls and adolescent victims, something “inadmissible”, and domestic violence, explains the UNICEF spokesman. Two out of every three children have experienced some kind of violent discipline, both psychological and physical, something that is explained by the fact that “punishment looks like something normal,” he laments.
“Violence against children is seen as acceptable and that is something that must be broken,” Duvillier claims. Latin America faces the challenge of “managing tensions and divergences without resorting to violence”, since otherwise the problem will continue “repeating from generation to generation” with children as “victims, witnesses and perpetrators” as members of gangs and maras, in a “vicious circle” to be broken, he adds.
IT IS NOT JUST TO COMBAT VIOLENCE, BUT ERADICATE IT
In this regard, UNICEF asks countries to “commit from the highest level to eradicate and prevent violence.” This happens, he emphasizes, “not only for fighting it, but for considering its causes and deep roots.”
Many of the countries have made significant progress in this area and have provided themselves with a legislative framework but this is not enough, Duvillier emphasizes. Citizens’ commitment to not use violence is also necessary, since otherwise those children who have been victims or witnesses will end up resorting to it, perpetuating the problem.
It is also important, to break with the stereotypes and gender roles assigned. “The change of mentality must begin very early” and the best time for it, according to the spokesman, is in preschool education. However, in Latin America it is still seen as a “luxury” and only six out of every ten children aged 3 and 4 receive it, being 2.5 times more likely that a rich child is schooled at that age than a poor one.
It is at that age, Duvillier insists, when you can change the gender perspective, when you can promote values and foster peaceful coexistence and achieve “change to a generation”, since the change once adolescence arrives is more complicated.
ADOLESCENT PREGNANCY AND CHILD MARRIAGE
This inequality between men and women is reflected in the rates of adolescent pregnancy and child marriage, a problem that “states do not see as a priority” and that in some countries “is seen as a problem of girls.” Unlike in other regions, in Latin America there are frequent links between adolescents who have started a relationship at an early age and who after having relations lead to an early pregnancy.
To solve this problem, explains Duvillier, it is essential to work with adolescents from an early age so that they know sexual and reproductive rights, that these are not “a taboo” and therefore can “avoid unwanted pregnancies”, and also encourage “respect for boys towards girls”.
Teenagers “do not develop relationships based on mutual respect and dialogue but it is an imposition” on the part of boys who tend to see girls as “sexual objects,” he denounces, betting again to start encouraging change from age too early.
Undressed and overweight children
Another problem that concerns UNICEF is that of food. Latin America and the Caribbean face what is called the “double burden of malnutrition”, with more than 5 million children under 5 who suffer from chronic malnutrition, which affects their growth and intellectual development, and almost 4 million with overweight.
This last problem is associated with poverty and inequality. The most disadvantaged families face the “dilemma” of having to consume low quality food, such as “processed food or junk” that cost less, since healthy foods “are out of reach,” he explains.
Faced with this challenge, there is much that can be done, starting with “empowering families” so that they have more information about what they eat and “know what is nutritious and what is not,” he says. For this, countries such as Chile and Mexico have opted for greater transparency in labeling.
It is also key to decrease the marketing of unhealthy foods. Mexico, for example, has introduced a tax on non-sugary beverages that allows reducing consumption while the State earns additional income, the UNICEF spokesperson illustrates. Another measure that can help tackle the problem is to offer healthy foods in schools and make them attractive.
“Latin America cannot continue with these high overpressure rates,” he emphasizes, stressing that “it is not good for children or for the State or the economy” because of the cost they pose in terms of health, labor and as a burden for Obese adults society.
Another challenge that increasingly threatens the well-being of children in the region is climate change, with “increasingly destructive and frequent natural disasters,” as evidenced by the recent passage of Hurricane ‘Dorian’ through the Bahamas. In 2017 there were more than 8 million children affected by natural disasters, while 13 million live in areas of high risk of drought and another 13 million in areas at risk of flooding.
Faced with all these problems, “Latin America has a full potential, which are young people, a creative and dynamic generation.” “Young people in the region care about violence and the environment and many of them are taking concrete actions and are not waiting for anyone to start changing the situation,” Duvillier said.
“Latin America has the capacity … to overcome difficulties and respond to childhood challenges, but this requires listening to young people and children, seeing what they are doing and supporting them,” said UNICEF spokesman, who Calls both governments and the private sector to do so.