Our Collective Global Future: Children and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

As any parent instinctively knows, our children are our future. They will inherit the world we leave for them. How they lead and shape the world depends in large part upon our actions today, upon how we invest in them.
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As any parent instinctively knows, our children are our future. They will inherit the world we leave for them. How they lead and shape the world depends in large part upon our actions today, upon how we invest in them. This is a truism not just for us as individual parents, but also as it relates to the world's children.

Currently, the world's children would certainly benefit from a more enduring and strategic focus.

Children make up more than half of the world's extreme poor, with roughly 570 million children living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. More than 76 million of these children live in developed nations. As we can imagine, such material poverty leads to malnutrition, hunger and death. Fifty-one million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition. Approximately 100 million children in low- and middle-income countries are underweight, with 3.1 million dying each year because of poor nutrition. Sixty-six million primary school-age children attend classes hungry.

On average, over one billon children - six in 10 in the world -- experience physical punishment. Nearly 230 million young children worldwide have not been registered at birth, making them even more vulnerable to violence since they do not legally exist.

In education, great strides have been made since 2000, with 50 million more children given access to schooling. But much more progress is necessary. Almost 58 million children of primary school age still remain out of school, more than half of whom are girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, only one in five girls makes it to secondary school. In fact, 17 million girls there are never expected to enter school at all.

Girls bear a disproportionate burden. Two-Hundred Fifty million adolescent girls live in poverty around the world. Sixty million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18. Early marriage restricts their education, income and prospects for the future. When they grow up, girls, who are more likely than boys to stay poor as adults, comprise a staggering 70 percent of the world's poorest people. Not surprisingly, girls are also subject to violence at alarming rates. Nearly a quarter of all girls worldwide between the ages of 15 and 19 report experiencing physical violence. Sexual violence is especially pernicious. Around 120 million girls under the age of 20 (about one in 10) have been forced to perform sexual acts at some point in their lives.

Such global numbers are staggering. It is ever more so as we realize that these numbers represent the lives of real, living children. Clearly, we cannot plan for a bright future without taking these facts into account. Thankfully, many world leaders also understand that we need to address the current well-being of the world's children.

In September of this year, world leaders will convene at the United Nations to agree upon a global development strategy for the next 15 years - the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs will include specific goals and targets covering several important challenges. A number of issues related to children are highlighted in a proposed strategy that is the basis of ongoing discussions. These include the following:

Ending poverty: Being poor during childhood increases the risk of being poor in adulthood, and poverty holds individuals and societies back from realizing their full potential. The proposed strategy makes eradicating poverty an explicit focus of economic development, with the first of the proposed SDG goals being an end to poverty in all its forms everywhere. An additional SDG goal targets reducing inequality within and among countries, something absent from the previous development strategy, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Explicit SDG targets include eliminating extreme poverty and investing in social systems to protect the poor and vulnerable.

Ending violence: Violence against children is pervasive. A proposed SDG goal promotes peaceful and inclusive societies that provide adequate access to justice. Specific targets include reducing violence and violence-related deaths and ending all forms of violence against children, including exploitation and torture.

Ending child and maternal death: Eight-hundred women die every day from preventable causes during pregnancy or childbirth. Also, many lethal complications of pregnancy and childbirth result from early pregnancy, which can be largely reduced by increased access to family planning information and services and ending early and forced marriage. A proposed SDG goal to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all seeks to build on progress made to date by setting specific targets such as reducing maternal mortality to less than 70 per 100,000 live births and ending preventable death for newborns and children under five.

Increasing access to education: Education is a key to success in life and a crucial part of lifting communities out of poverty. Within the last decade, there has been significant progress in increasing access to education, but not all children in school are learning as they should. Disparities still exist in parts of the world, affecting girls, children with disabilities, and children from indigenous groups. A proposed SDG goal will ensure inclusive and equitable, quality education for all. Specific targets include: ensuring that all girls and boys complete primary and secondary education; providing universal access to pre-primary education and increasing focus on early childhood development; and guaranteeing equal access for girls and boys to all levels of education.

Focusing on women and girls: Gender inequality impedes development in every realm. Women and girls face particular vulnerabilities and threats that must be explicitly addressed. A proposed SDG goal is to achieve full gender equality and empower all women and girls. Targets include demanding an end to all forms of discrimination against women and girls, and ending harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting.

By focusing in these areas, the preliminary strategy for the SDGs starts off on the right track. Future global discussions will bring to light numerous issues and challenges regarding priorities. However, it is crucial to ground children's issues within a human rights framework. Children's rights are human rights. These rights have been enshrined in one of the most widely recognized human rights treaties in the world -- the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Linking SDG goals to this universal framework has the added advantage of holding the world's governments more accountable to meeting goals relating to children. If governments fail to meet SDG objectives, they also fail to fulfill the human rights of their people. The stakes are high because children are our future. We owe it to ourselves to commit to strong action to ensure that each child in the world has a bright future.

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