As we look around the world today, we’re confronted with an uncomfortable but undeniable truth: millions of children’s lives are blighted, for no reason other than the country, the community, the gender or the circumstances into which they are born.

New data included in UNICEF’s new report, The State of the World’s Children 2016: A fair chance for every child, show that unless we accelerate the pace of our progress in reaching them, the futures of millions of disadvantaged and vulnerable children – and therefore the future of their societies – will be imperiled.

Before they draw their first breath, the life chances of poor and excluded children are often being shaped by inequities. Disadvantage and discrimination against their communities and families will help determine whether they live or die, whether they have a chance to learn and later earn a decent living. Conflicts, crises, and climate-related disasters deepen their deprivation and diminish their potential.

The State of the World’s Children 2016: A fair chance for every child
Image: UNICEF

But it need not be so. As this report illustrates, the world has made tremendous progress in reducing child deaths, getting children into school and lifting millions out of poverty. Many of the interventions behind this progress have been practical and cost-effective - such as vaccines, oral rehydration salts, and better nutrition. The rise of digital and mobile technology and other innovations have made it easier and more cost-effective to deliver critical services in hard to reach communities, and to expand opportunities for the children and families at greatest risk.

For the most part, the constraints on reaching these children are not technical. They are a matter of political commitment. They are a matter of resources. And they are a matter of collective will - tackling inequity and inequality head on by focusing greater investment and effort on reaching the children who are being left behind.

The time to act is now. Unless we disrupt current trends, by 2030 almost 70 million children may die before reaching their fifth birthdays – 3.6 million in 2030 alone, the deadline year for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Children in sub-Saharan Africa will be 12 times more likely to die before their fifth birthdays than children in high-income countries.

Nine out of 10 children in poverty will live in Africa.

In 2030, nine out of 10 children in poverty will live in Africa.
Image: UNICEF

Approximately 60 million primary school-aged children will still be out of school - roughly the same number as are out of school today.

Around 750 million women will have been married as children – three quarters of a billion child brides.

These vast inequities and dangers do more than violate the rights and imperil the futures of individual children. They perpetuate inter-generational cycles of disadvantage and inequality that undermine the stability of societies and even the security of nations everywhere.

 More than half of the 59 million out-of school children live in sub-Saharan Africa
Image: UNICEF

More than ever, we should recognize that development is only sustainable if it can be carried on by future generations. We have an opportunity to replace these vicious cycles with virtuous cycles in which today’s poor children – if given a fair chance at health, education, and protection from harm – can, as adults, compete on a more level playing field with the children of wealthier backgrounds. Thus making not only their own lives better, but their societies richer in every sense of the word.

For when we help a boy access the medicine and nutrition he needs to grow up healthy and strong, we not only increase his chances in life, we decrease the economic and social costs associated with poor health and low productivity.

When we educate a girl, we not only give her the tools and knowledge to make her own decisions and shape her own future, we also help raise the standard of living of her family and her community.

When we provide education, shelter, and protection for children caught in conflicts, we help mend their hearts and their minds, so that someday, they will have the ability and the desire to help rebuild their countries.

UNICEF’s new report concludes with five ways to achieve greater equity for children, building on what we have learned over the last 25 years, and what we are still learning:

  • Increasing information about those being left behind.
  • Integrating our efforts across sectors to tackle the multiple deprivations that hold so many children back.
  • Innovating to accelerate progress and drive change for the most excluded children and families.
  • Investing in equity and finding new ways of financing efforts to reach the most disadvantaged children.
  • Involving everyone, beginning with communities themselves and with businesses, organizations, and citizens around the world who believe we can change the outcome for millions of children.

We can. Inequity is not inevitable. Inequality is a choice. Promoting equity - a fair chance for every child - is also a choice. A choice we can make, and must make. For their future, and the future of our world.

This piece is part of a UNICEF’s flagship report, The State of the World’s Children: A Fair Chance for Every Child.