The welfare of children has dramatically improved in the past ten years. It is an encouraging trend – but massive disparities remain between nations
It is a success story that many countries can only dream of. Since 2000, infant mortality in Southeast Asia has fallen by one third, with countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia even cutting their rate in half in the last decade. Investment in primary health care and sanitation led to impressive results in child survival, while improved nutrition policies pushed Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam into the top 15 fastest progressing countries in the reduction of stunting over the past 20 years. Primary school enrollment, vaccination coverage, reduction of child labour: The list of achievements is spectacular, putting Asean members on the right track to meet many of their international commitments regarding child welfare.
Yet there is still a long way to go before declaring victory, with frustration evident in many international studies. As a Unicef report recently stated, child malnutrition rates remain “unacceptably high” given the region’s economic growth, and inequalities between and within states have increased in the last ten years. Completion rates of the last grade of primary school are still problematic in poorer countries, and child labour data is dramatically underestimated in official figures due to a lack of solid monitoring systems. Finally, cultural beliefs, corporate marketing and a lack of information all act as obstacles to crucial health practices such as
breastfeeding – the most effective nutrition intervention for saving lives – or encourage worrying new challenges such as child obesity.
Economic growth clearly led to significant progress for children in Asean, but it was not quite the magic potion so many leaders had hoped for. While there is certainly reason for optimism, no one should forget that for millions of
children the glass remains desperately half empty.