Skip to main content

Millennium Development Goals

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this important issue, Mr Bone. I thank the Minister in advance for responding to my concerns, and I thank hon. Members for attending the debate.

An estimated 24 million children worldwide grow up without parental care. In some regions, as many as 30% live apart from their parents, and research suggests that that figure is increasing. Every child deserves to grow up, to go to school and to live their childhood free from hunger and disease, exploitation, abuse and violence. Experience has shown that this happens best when children are loved and cared for in a family setting.

The millennium development goals have focused global efforts to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, yet many of the crucial targets are in danger of not being reached by 2015. That would have a devastating impact on the well-being of children throughout the world. Failure to provide proper care and protection for children is hindering progress in achieving many MDGs. Future development goals, which are currently being developed, need to recognise and eradicate those mistakes.

There are huge gaps in child protection systems around the world. Such systems are crucial to ensuring the protection of children who are without parental care. Therefore, addressing child protection in the MDGs and the successor framework is key in supporting the rights of such children. I will outline how children’s rights to care and protection are the missing link in achieving the MDGs. Children without the care and protection of their family are particularly vulnerable and hard to reach.

I want to cover two issues related to the MDGs: the importance of including protection and care concerns in efforts to monitor the MDGs; and the need to address the absence of an explicit reference to child protection and care in the current MDGs, if the post-MDG framework is to be effective in improving children’s well-being in the future.

MDG 1 aims to end poverty and hunger. Children who are in the care of the state, either in residential care or in detention, may fail to receive adequate food, despite the obligation on Governments to provide it, while children who are not in conventional households, such as those living on the streets, in migrant families, or in child-only households, are often excluded from social protection schemes. Poorly designed social protection systems are, at best, failing to reach children who are without adequate care and protection, and, at worst, actively encouraging family separation or child labour. In South Africa and Ukraine, payments to foster or extended family carers mean that children will be in better resourced households if parents give them up to other forms of care.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In an answer to a parliamentary question I tabled, I was surprised to discover that the Department for International Development does not have a dedicated child protection policy. Does my hon. Friend think that that is something DFID should have, signalling post-MDG intentions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that appropriate intervention. I am sure that the Minister has taken note and will respond to it. I agree with my hon. Friend and share his concerns.

MDGs 2 and 3 seek universal education and gender equality. In its 2012 annual report, DFID acknowledges that to meet the target of universal primary education, efforts need to shift to the hardest-to-reach children. Education for all will not be achieved unless the current widespread exclusion of young married girls and children in extended family care, prison or work is addressed. Children who have lost both parents are 12% less likely to be in school than other children. The vast majority of children living and working on the streets do not attend school, while children in detention often have no access to formal school during their sentences. For the 13.6% of children who are child labourers, including a quarter of children in sub-Saharan Africa, combining work with school often has a negative impact on learning achievements, with long working hours preventing children from attending school at all.

International recognition of the links between child labour and education have not translated into policy change on the part of many Governments. To get education for their children, the only option for some families, who are in poverty or are far from a school, is to send their children away to live in institutions that provide education but are detrimental to their well-being in other ways. Long distances to school mean that some children have to find alternative accommodation, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

MDG 4 addresses child health. The widespread use of residential care for children under three places many children and infants at greater risk of dying young. In Russia, official statistics suggest that the mortality rate for children under four years old in residential care is 10 times higher than that of the general population. In Sudan, of 2,500 infants admitted to one institution in a five-year period, only 400 survived. There are currently at least 8 million children in residential care, with evidence to suggest a growth in this form of care in many countries in the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

Finally, MDGs 5 and 6 address maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS. Ensuring that children have adequate care and protection is essential for improving maternal health and combating the spread of HIV. Preventing early marriage is essential for stemming the spread of HIV and preventing girls from becoming mothers at an early age when the risks of maternal and child mortality are highest. Trafficked children, child domestic workers and other working children often face sexual abuse. An estimated 2 million children, mainly girls, are sexually exploited in the commercial sex trade each year. Street children are often sexually active at a very young age.

Early sexual activity has profound implications for maternal and child health. Forced sex and limited power in relationships mean that girls without adequate care and protection often face early motherhood, with severe consequences for the health of both young mothers and babies. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19-year-old girls. Those who give birth aged under 15 are five times more likely to die than women aged over 20. Babies born to young mothers are also less likely to survive. Early and often forced sexual activity among children lacking adequate care and protection increases the risk of HIV infection. Lack of control over contraceptive use, inadequate knowledge of reproductive health, frequent sexual activity and having sex with often older husbands all result in such children being more vulnerable to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Children on the streets are often discriminated against by service providers and unable to access health care or advice about contraceptive use. DFID is committed to achieving education for all, including the most hard-to-reach groups. What is it doing to ensure that children who are outside parental care receive an education, and that their parents do not have to make agonising choices between schooling and care and protection?

DFID makes substantial investments in social protection programmes around the world. What is it doing to ensure that social protection reaches the most vulnerable and is designed in a way that keeps families together and does not push them apart? Through its commitment to achieving the MDGs, DFID is working to reduce child and maternal mortality and the spread of HIV. What is it doing to reduce separation from parents and deal with the abuse and exploitation that is so often the cause of dangerous early pregnancy and HIV infection?

DFID is focusing more on fragile and conflict-affected states and is working to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. What is DFID doing to ensure that, in dealing with preparedness and responses to conflict and disasters, emphasis is put on preventing families separating and on protecting children whose families are torn apart by war?

It is important that DFID ensures the development of indicators of impacts on children who are outside parental care and/or facing situations of abuse or exploitation.

I am sorry, I shall continue.

DFID must invest more in appropriate, integrated child protection systems that adhere to the UN guidelines for the alternative care of children. The Prime Minister has recently been appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel, looking at what comes after 2015 when the targets for the millennium development goals end. The first presentation of the panel’s work will be made in September.

The coalition Government recognise the importance of strong families in improving the lives of children in the UK, yet in their work in the developing world not enough is being done to keep families together. The UN is co-ordinating a global process to develop a post-MDG framework and there is an opportunity for the UK to influence the process, and the outcomes of the development of these goals, by promoting specific reference to children’s rights to care and protection in any framework and by ensuring that extra effort is made to consult hard-to-reach children, so that their voices are heard in the global debates on a framework that could shape their future. I should like the Minister to address his Department’s role in those two areas.

The post-MDG framework should include specific targets on children’s protection and care, for example, by measuring reductions in numbers growing up in large institutions, in detention, in harmful child labour, living and working on the streets, or experiencing violence, abuse or neglect in homes and schools. A consideration of children’s protective rights will also help to ensure the equitable achievement of the millennium development goals. Only through a consideration of such basic rights will it be possible to make wide-reaching and sustainable progress in efforts to alleviate child poverty, increase access to education, improve maternal and child health, and reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS.

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma)for calling a debate on a topic that has an important bearing on the lives of so many people around the world. There is little doubt that children who live without parental care or in situations of severe family abuse and neglect are the most vulnerable in any society.

Children in the poorest countries are particularly at risk, especially those living through conflict or humanitarian disasters. In most societies children with disabilities face particular difficulties, as do children living in institutional care. Girls are often the most vulnerable, which is why the UK Government are working closely with partners, such as the Nike Girl Hub, to improve the lives of many thousands of girls living in abject poverty worldwide.

UNICEF estimates that almost 18 million children worldwide have lost both parents and 153 million have lost one parent. Many of those children face real hardships. They are often left without protection and care. Some are fortunate enough to be able to live with relatives or friends, but many more end up on the streets, having to fend for themselves and eke out a living.

Supporting vulnerable girls and boys is an important priority in international development. The UK Government are helping to tackle it in a range of ways, including through specific programmes aimed at improving the lives of the most vulnerable, as well as through our work with others, including overseas Governments, the United Nations, the private sector and civil society.

I can answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) in his intervention by making it clear that those who work on child rights and child protection receive training and tuition on those subjects. DFID tailors child protection programmes to the context of individual countries and includes child protection clauses in its grants to partners.

Hon. Members will be aware of international statutes that have a bearing on the issue of vulnerable children. The UN convention on the rights of the child and the International Labour Organisation’s convention on child labour provide a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations on human rights for children that must be respected by Governments in all societies, and clear frameworks to hold Governments and others to account. The UK is not just a signatory to those conventions, but is actively working with others to ensure that the standards are put into practice and genuinely help to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people across the world.

In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, I shall focus on four ways in which we are working to improve the lives of vulnerable children living without parental care. First, international evidence shows that cash transfer programmes are one of the most effective ways of reaching orphans and vulnerable children. In some cases, those are in the form of pensions, because many of the children live with their grandparents. For example, where one or both parents died from HIV/AIDS, such payments provide a vital source of income to help poor families care for children and stick together. In other cases, cash transfer programmes directly target the children themselves. For example, in Kenya, DFID is supporting the Government’s orphans and vulnerable children programme, which directly targets children without parental care, and is reaching more than 55,000 households. Over the past few years, it has resulted in a reduction in the proportion of those aged six to 13 doing paid work from one in 20 to one in 100. It has also helped to reduce the number of people living on less than a dollar a day from one third to one fifth.

In Zimbabwe, DFID is supporting the Zimbabwean Government’s national action plan for orphans and vulnerable children. It will help at least 25,000 children to secure their basic rights and meet essential needs, by providing money for food and school fees and helping orphans to access justice services.

Secondly, the UK is the second largest donor to the UN children’s fund—UNICEF—which works in 190 countries, helping the poorest and most vulnerable children in a huge range of areas, including health and education, child labour, trafficking, and recruitment into armed forces, and giving critical support to children in institutional care. In 2011, for example, UNICEF helped 19 million women and children with nutritional support after natural disasters, and helped 6 million of the most vulnerable children receive schooling in the aftermath of a disaster or humanitarian emergency.

Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall rightly said, the millennium development goals are central to the UK’s development priorities, which we are ensuring include the poorest and most vulnerable children. For example, we support universal primary education, because we know that the high cost of education is the biggest deterrent to school attendance by the most marginalised children. By supporting countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda to remove school fees we have seen a dramatic surge in school enrolment, helping more than 1 million extra children to go to school in each of those countries. Through the UK’s support to the World Food Programme’s “Food for Education” programme, we are helping to provide high-energy biscuits to 400,000 children in Afghan secondary schools and, therefore, an incentive for very poor children to attend school.

Children are often orphaned because of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The MDGs are vital in focusing the international community and Governments on tackling such killer diseases and, as a result, have prevented millions more children from losing their parents in the first place. The MDGs have helped to shape the quickest and biggest improvements in poverty reduction, child survival and school enrolment that the world has ever seen. The goals that follow the MDGs after 2015 must build on that success, while learning lessons from them.

I am aware that some people argue that the post-MDG goals should be a continuation of the current MDGs, while others say that the United Nations should completely rewrite them. The UK Government will play a role in helping to shape the new goals and will work to ensure that they meet the needs of the poorest. Our commitment comes right from the top; I am delighted that the Prime Minister will be co-chairing the high-level UN panel that is to lead the process. All may rest assured that he is personally committed to the new framework dealing with the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised children.

Last, but certainly not least, our support to civil society partners is also vital to reach the most vulnerable children and communities. For example, through Save the Children, the Government are providing vital life-saving support to those affected by the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. We are assisting Save the Children and other organisations to mobilise early support for the most vulnerable children. Last year, DFID’s funding helped Save the Children to reach 2.7 million people with emergency food, clean water and health care in east Africa.

Through War Child we are helping children in detention centres in Afghanistan; boys are often locked away just for petty theft, and girls are usually locked up for what is called running away or eloping. Conditions in many such centres are deeply shocking; children are often denied education and they are given little food or comfort. War Child’s interventions are helping to improve the justice system as well as conditions in the centres, and children are assisted to reconnect with their families and local communities when they leave the centres.

Our support to Plan International is helping more than 6,000 children who live and work on the streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to transform their lives. It provides safe shelters, basic education, health and sanitation facilities, information on issues such as sexual abuse, child labour and trafficking, and counselling for the most vulnerable and traumatised children.

In conclusion, the UK Government are acutely aware of the vulnerability of children around the world, in particular those without safeguards to protect them. We are doing a great deal on this agenda but, clearly, more needs to be done. We will continue to work with others to find effective ways of meeting the needs of those children. We are also fully aware that the post-MDG framework must include a focus on the world’s most marginalised people, including vulnerable children. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall for raising the issue in today’s debate. He has done a great service to an important cause in the field of development.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.