Children living in poverty – unseen, but among us

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A new study released on 26 February by Unicef reveals higher levels of poverty and malnutrition among children living in low-cost housing in Kuala Lumpur, compared to the national average.

Commissioned by Unicef, the study Children Without: A Study of Urban Child Poverty and Deprivation in Low-cost Flats in Kuala Lumpur highlights how poverty impairs the opportunities of children living in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur to early education and makes them more vulnerable to malnourishment, with potentially damaging impact on their cognitive development.

“Malaysia has made tremendous progress over the last 30 years, in eliminating poverty. What this study shows, however, is that not everyone has benefited equally and that some, notably children, are being left behind,” said Marianne Clark-Hattingh, Unicef representative in Malaysia.

While the national poverty rate is less than one per cent, and almost eradicated in Kuala Lumpur, the report indicates a 100% rate of relative poverty amongst children living in low-cost flats in the nation’s capital.

Some of the main findings of this study include:

  • Almost all children (99.7%) in low-cost flats live in relative poverty and 7% in absolute poverty
  • About 15% of children below the age of five are underweight, almost two times higher compared to the KL average (8%)
  • About 22% of the children are stunted, two times higher than the KL average
  • About 23% of the children are either overweight or obese, six times higher compared to the KL average (4%)
  • While almost all the children aged 7-17 are in school, only 50% of 5-6-year-olds attend pre-school compared to 92% of national enrolment in 2015
  • About 1 in 3 households surveyed has no reading materials, for children aged below 18
  • About 4 in 10 households have no toys for children below 5.
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“Children in low-cost flats live in Kuala Lumpur, within easy proximity to amenities; yet, have less access to nutritious food, don’t go to pre-school, live in perceived unsafe areas and have less opportunity to learn and play than most other children in Malaysia. The reality is: poor children are among us but they often remain unseen. It’s clearly a data blind spot,” added Clark-Hattingh.

“Unicef has learned through experience that problems that go unmeasured often go unsolved. By disclosing the situation of children living in poor urban areas, the study provides evidence to support targeted policies and interventions to ensure that no child is left behind, in line with the government’s commitment to Agenda 2030 and its 2050 National Transformation.”

Produced by DM Analytics, the study is the result of a survey of almost 1,000 households who have children below 18 years of age in their care and are residing in Program Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) low-cost housing. The study sheds light on the living conditions of over 2,000 children residing in low-cost housing in the capital and the impact on their wellbeing.

To accelerate efforts to address child poverty in urban areas, the report recommends:

  • revisiting poverty indicators, namely the Poverty Line Income (PLI) and using multidimensional indicators that include the nutritional status of children and relative income poverty
  • providing universal child care grants.
  • promoting exclusive breastfeeding for at least six month
  • implementing policies that facilitate access to nutritious food, such as taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), regulation of food sold in and around schools;
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These recommendations support and contributed to Malaysia’s aspiration to become a top 20 nation as expressed under the 2050 National Transformation and Agenda 2030, which is the roadmap for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Malaysia. In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child that Malaysia ratified in 1995, the implementation of these measures will also help Malaysia uphold its commitment to the protection and welfare of all children.

“One of the optimal ways to ensure that every child in Malaysia has an equal start in life is by providing a comprehensive social protection floor,” said Clark-Hattingh. “This will facilitate equal access to basic services such as health, education and nutrition for the most marginalised families, thus mitigating the effects of deprivation on children, and help break the cycle of poverty.”

In conjunction with this study, four other initiatives were carried out to create a debate and shape the public discourse on urban child poverty and deprivations together with young people, namely a Youth Photography Course, a Policython, a Journalism Workshop and a Student Research Award. Different groups including school-aged children from five low-cost flats, university students, young professionals and young journalists participated in these activities last year.

Today two students Sudha Sivadas and Dr Normaz Wana Ismail, received the Student Research Award for their work on urban child poverty. Another student, Dewi Seribayu, won first place in the Journalism Essay Contest with her essay, “The Role of Journalism in Eradicating Poverty”.

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