REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG -- You see them, night and day, in nearly every African city. They are ragged children dodging between the cars: beggars, shoeshine boys, teenage prostitutes, petty traders and porters carrying loads on their heads with thin, pinched faces and anxious eyes.
They tap on car windows, begging, and wait by the highway desperate to sell their goods.
Around half the people in the world live in cities and towns, a billion of them children, as the urban population spirals. Millions of children live in slums and shantytowns and they're dying of the same illnesses that kill the rural poor, according to UNICEF: hunger, diarrhea and disease caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding.
Many of the urban poor don't go to school, according to a UNICEF's report on the state of the world's children. Instead they work, often in dangerous or exploitative jobs. Some 115 million of the world's children work in hazardous jobs, the report said.
Like the rural poor, slum children often lack access to water, electricity and health facilities.
According to the report, the plight of the the urban poor has been overlooked, their poverty concealed in statistics that indicate that, on average, children in urban settings are better off.
"The hardships endured by children in poor urban communities are often concealed, and thus perpetuated, by the statistical averages on which development programs and decisions about resouce allocation are based. Because averages lump everyone in together, the poverty of some is obscured by the wealth of others," the report said.
Some 60% of urbanized Africans live in slums, and by 2020 the global slum population will reach 1.4 billion, mainly in Africa and Asia. In Nigeria, 50% of the population lives in cities and in South Africa, 62% have fled rural areas hoping to find jobs in cities and towns.
But they often meet not just unemployment, poverty and hunger, but precarious housing, forced to live in flimsy shacks or squalid rooms with no tenant rights.
Lack of food contributes to a third of the deaths of children under 5 years old annually, according to the report. A 2004 study of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that more than 40% of urban populations were undernourished and in several countries the figure was higher than 70%.
In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, two-thirds of the population lives in sprawling slums where the under-5 mortality rate is "alarming" the report said, at 151 per thousand live births.
"Poor water supply and sanitation, the use of hazardous cooking fuels in badly ventilated spaces, overcrowding and the need to pay for health services, which effectively puts them out of reach of the poor, are among the major underlying causes of under-5 deaths," the report said.
People in urban slums are often forced to pay street vendors for potable water, so the cost of water can be 50 times higher than for wealthy people in the same city. A study of Kenyan urban slum dwellers in 2009 showed that, with public health facilities almost nonexistent, people used unlicensed and ramshackle private clinics offering substandard treatment.
"When we think of poverty, the image that traditionally comes to mind is that of a child in a rural village,” said UNICEF Director Anthony Lake in a statement released with the report. “But today, an increasing number of children living in slums and shantytowns are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the world, deprived of the most basic services and denied the right to thrive.
“Urbanization is a fact of life and we must invest more in cities, focusing greater attention on providing services to the children in greatest need,” Lake said.
-- Robyn Dixon