Children At Risk

Around the world, there are 1.2 billion children at risk under the age of 18. In many developing countries, this age group represents 50% of the population. Children at risk lack basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, safety, parental support, healthcare, and education needed for normal childhood development. They are at risk of never reaching their God-given potential physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally. These vulnerable children go to extreme measures to meet these basic needs and are at risk of being exploited.

Below are brief descriptions of different kinds of children at risk. Many children fit into more than one category. A child in extreme poverty may work on the street to gain money for his family or be sold into bonded labor to pay off family debts. A child whose parents die of AIDS becomes an orphan.

One out of every five people on earth is a child at risk. God is not silent about these children. His care, compassion, and protection for them are seen throughout Scripture. God’s Word is clear that those who exploit the weak and needy will incur God’s judgment (Isaiah 10:1-2; Amos 2:6-7). However, those who minister to them are described as practicing religion that is “pure and faultless” (James 1:27). God has called and equipped the Church, his body on earth, to minister to children at risk by bringing them the hope of transformed lives.

Children in Poverty

Many families around the world live on less than $1 (US) a day. (Compassion International, 2008) Although poverty certainly connotes a lack of financial resources, it encompasses much more. Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is being sick without access to medical treatment. Poverty is not being able to go to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is being without a way to support your family. Poverty is living from day to day and fearing the future. Poverty is powerlessness, limited choices, and lack of representation (Viva Network, 2008). Children in poor families have hopes and dreams for the future that are often jeopardized by the day-to-day struggle to meet basic needs. Poverty is a root cause of why many children end up in situations where they are exploited (child labors, child soldiers, sexual exploitation).

Orphaned Children

The classic definition of an orphan is a child who has lost both parents. The World Health Organization and the United Nations now include children who have lost only one parent. The reason for broadening the definition is because of the AIDS pandemic. If children have lost one parent to AIDS, it is only a mat­ter of time before they lose the other parent. In its “Children on the Brink” 2004 report, UNICEF uses the following definitions for statistical purposes in estimating the orphan subpopulation:

  • Maternal orphans are children under the age of 18 whose mothers have died.
  • Paternal orphans are children under the age of 18 whose fathers have died.
  • Double orphans are children under the age of 18 whose mothers and fathers have died

There are more than 145 million orphaned children throughout the world. The majority of orphaned chil­dren under age 18 are found in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In countries where HIV/AIDS has hit hardest, the number of orphans continues to rise. Death from AIDS is more likely to create double orphans than any other cause of death. (Children on the Brink, 2004)

One major reason children become orphaned is the death of one or both parents, but there are other reasons as well. In a natural disaster or a war, children can become separated from their parents. If this separation is permanent, children become orphaned. Many parents abandon children who are born with a disability. The disability might be significant such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or mental retardation. It could also be a slight deformity such as a cleft lip or a lazy eye. Parents living in extreme poverty will abandon or relinquish their children to institutions.

Street Children

There is a crisis on the streets of the world’s major cities. Street children – just hearing these words can trigger the emotions of most people, young and old. According to the United Nations, there are 100-140 million street children worldwide, more than the entire populations of France and Great Britain combined. In South America there are at least 40 million street children, in Asia 25 million, in Africa 10 million, and in Eastern and Western Europe approximately 25 million children and young people living on the streets. Some governments in the world would say that the street child phenomenon is becoming the greatest problem of the 21st century.

Who are street children? They are defined as follows:

Persons under their specific country’s legal adult age limit (usually 18 years old) whose lives are carried out in the streets, squares, parks, shopping centers, and other public places of cities. These life activities include sleeping, eating, begging, stealing, mugging, socializing, having sex, consuming drugs, raising their babies, fighting, killing, working illegally, dealing with authorities, evading the police, and perhaps dying … on the streets. (Viva Network, n.d. [c])

UNICEF defines street children differently:

Children on the street: children who have to work on the streets because their families need the money to survive.

Children in the street: children from poor families who sleep on the streets. Some come from underprivileged parts of the country into the city, others have run away.

Children of the street: orphans and abandoned children whose parents have died because of illness or war, or to whom it was simply impossible to look after their children.

Child Laborers

Millions of children around the world are forced to become laborers at a young age. Children work to survive, provide for their family, or pay off parental debt. Debt bondage is recognized as a modern form of slavery. It is most commonly found in prostitution, domestic services, agriculture, and a variety of small manufacturing industries.The most prevalent – and the most hidden – type of forced child labor is the selling or giving away of children to become domestic servants. In exchange for a bet­ter life, perhaps an education and a stipend, the children, who are predominately girls, find themselves trapped in a web of grueling and demeaning work. They are often subjected to extreme physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Many times they are locked inside their places of work.

God intends for children to grow and flourish in a just society. As the people of God, we need to stand against unfair treatment of kids. Because God is looking out for the rights of children, we must also.

Children of War

“When war spills like ink from a bottle and seeps into the fabric of a culture, no one can escape the trauma. And it is the most tender and fragile fibers in the fabric of our society – our children – that suffer most. More children are killing and dying in wars than ever before. And the wounds they incur are neither short-lived nor just physical. They are deep and damaging, and they last a lifetime.” (Miller, 1996)

War wipes out the institution of the family and attacks the very backbone of a culture. Countless children grow up without their parents, and many have witnessed the killing of their parents right before their eyes. Others are forcefully separated from their parents. Children are among the most vulnerable mem­bers of any displaced population. They are often the earliest and most frequent victims of violence, dis­ease, and malnutrition. Most children who die in wartime have not been hit by bombs or bullets but have succumbed to starvation or sickness. Only two percent of war-related deaths are attributed to violence (UNICEF). Each day 5,000 children become refugees, and one in every 230 persons in the world is a child or adolescent who has been forced to flee from home. (Viva Network, n.d. [b])

Children are not only witnesses to war; they are also being forced to participate. War is no place for a child, yet children as young as five are forced to become soldiers. Up to 300,000 children are fighting adult wars around the world today. Armies in more than 30 countries use children as soldiers. Children in Rwanda were forced to kill their own friends and family members in that country’s orgy of slaughter in the spring of 1994. Uganda’s LRA (Lord’s Re­sistance Army) actively recruited children, many of whom were only 11 or 12, and some were as young as five years. They are used both by “regular” government forces and rebel armies. Army chiefs like to recruit children because they are small, easy to intimidate, don’t ask for wages, and are less likely to rebel or ask questions. They are also cheaper in other ways – they eat less food than adult soldiers and, the gravest reason, are considered “expendable.”

Some children are forced into becoming soldiers, but others join voluntarily for a variety of reasons. Most child soldiers come from very poor families or from groups such as street children or refugees. Often with no family around them, these children are particularly vulnerable to being recruited. Some have lost their families in war and want to avenge their deaths. Joining an army can give an orphan a sense of be­longing, almost like a replacement family. Some children genuinely believe (or have been brainwashed into believing) they they’re doing the right thing by joining a group of “freedom fighters.” Carrying a gun and giving orders can make children feel powerful even if they’re not. Because children are often forced to do violent things to other people, they become hardened to violence, or desensitized. Being forced to kill others – sometimes even their own friends or family – also makes children believe they have burned their bridges with the outside world. They dare not try to escape – for fear not only of being killed by the adult soldiers but also of being rejected by their communities. They feel that because they have done such terrible things, they can’t go back. This process is also deliberate; it’s a way of forcing children to stay in armies. (Save the Children)

Children Affected by HIV/AIDS

It is estimated that 15 million children have been orphaned by HIV/ AIDS. Those who survive without parents face many challenges, including the burdens of sorrow, grief, fear, or – more frequently – hope­lessness about the future. The pandemic has forced vast numbers of children into difficult circum­stances, exposing them to exploitation and abuse, and putting them at high risk of themselves becoming infected with the HIV virus. Children in households with an HIV-positive member suffer the trauma of car­ing for the person. Seeing their own parents or caregivers become ill and die can lead to psychosocial stress, which is aggravated by the stigma so often associated with the disease. Many struggle to survive on their own in child-headed households. Many more live on the streets, surviving among the garbage. Consequently, there are increasingly high numbers of unprotected, poorly socialized, and underedu­cated young people.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic deprives children of their most basic rights. Many must forego an education because they are needed at home to take care of a sick family member. Others much leave school because a parent can no longer work or because a teacher can no longer teach. The cycle perpetuates itself; without the knowledge that even a basic education provides, children are at greater risk of con­tracting the HIV virus themselves. “HIV/AIDS is also both a cause and a consequence of commercial sexual exploitation of children. In some parts of the world, children are being chosen as sex partners in the mistaken belief that sex with a child is safer. Quite the opposite is true. Because of their vulnerability and weakness, children are often forced to take multiple clients, thus exposing themselves even further to the disease. Also children are physically more vulnerable to infection. Some tribal cultures promote the idea that having sex with a virgin cleanses the man’s body of the AIDS virus. This myth has led to a huge increase in rape cases, not just for women but for anyone under the age of 16, male or female.

HIV/AIDS will continue to affect the lives of several generations of children. The impact will mark com­munities for decades as the numbers of impoverished children increase, their education and work op­portunities decline, nurturing and support systems erode, and mortality rises.

Children are being torn from their families by this disease. They are abandoned, orphaned, and afflicted. HIV/AIDS is destroying the very fabric of the family. And yet, God reminds us in Psalm 68:5-6 that he is the Father to the fatherless, he will be their defender and lead them forth with singing. There is hope for the children. Pray and ask God to restore his children to their rightful place in his family.

Sexually Exploited Children

Although exploiting children is not a new phenomenon, three factors, at least, make the children in today’s society especially vulnerable: the multi-million dollar pornography industry, lucrative sex tourism, and worldwide trafficking of children across borders for sexual purposes. Sex with children is used for entertainment and profit, for perverted enjoyment and comfort, to exert power and establish dominance (McDermid, 1998). The effects on the children are irrefutable and long lasting.

There are many forms of sexual exploitation being used against both girls and boys including:

  • Incest and Rape
  • Child Brides
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Pornography
  • Prostitution, sexual slavery

The Girl Child

The term the “girl child” describes a female child up to the age of eighteen. When referring to the girl child a clear distinction needs to be made between the terms sex and gender. Biological characteristics identify the sex of an individual as male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct. Gender is what it means in a particular society to be male or female. Gender attributes include codes of behavior considered appropriate to each gender, along with a division of labor between the two genders (Kilbourn, 2008). The girl child quickly learns there is a high price to pay for being born a girl. Discrimination against the girl child is with her from the womb:

  • Pre-birth: ultrasound and amniocentesis test results are used to abort unwanted baby girls.
  • Infancy: female infants experience infanticide and discriminatory neglect; girls are also breastfed less and weaned earlier.
  • Childhood: girls receive less nourishing food, and are immunized less and taken for medical care later and in worse condition than boys; girls get much less education and have to work up to twice as many hours in the home as boys.
  • Pre-adolescence: girls are married off much earlier than boys.
  • Adolescence: as child brides, many girls get pregnant in their teenage years, facing great health risks for themselves and their babies. (Unicef, State of the World’s Children 2007).

A recent World Vision report stated why it is crucial to support girl child issues: “Girls are the world’s most squandered gift. They are precious human beings with enormous potential, but across the world, they are generally the last to have their basic needs met and the first to have their basic rights denied.” (World Vision, 2001).

Children with Disabilities

In America, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, such as walking, speaking, seeing, hearing, etc. Being limited in any one of these activities will, in turn, affect the person’s ability to participate in social, recreational, and employment opportunities.

The United Nations estimates 10 % of the world’s population—approximately 650 million people, of whom 200 million are children—experience some form of disability. Many live in unbelievable poverty and isolation! The vast majority of people with disabilities are excluded from schools, churches, and opportunities to work, as well as poverty reduction programs and HIV/AIDS information and services. As many as 80% of working age people with disabilities are unemployed they make up 15–20 % of the poorest communities. They live marginalized, isolated lives and often begas their sole means of survival.

Disabled adults and children are three times more likely to become victims of sexual violence and rape. Other factors, such as physical dependence, life in institutions, and lack of access to legal rights, also make them particularly vulnerable to infectionand abuse (UN Report on Disability and Rehabilitation).

Disability in Africa and in other parts of the world is seen as a stigma – a mark of disgrace in the family, bringing bad luck, or a punishment for sin that the parents have done. As a result, disabled people are most often excluded from education, social and community activities. They are virtually guaranteed to live out their lives as the poorest of the poor.