Children in Cities: Forging a Sustainable Urban Future

By Anna Grojec

Wafa, 17, must fetch water daily in Cairo. Photo: Courtesy of UNICEF

Over half the world’s people – including more than one billion children – make their homes in the world’s cities, where the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental inequality is manifest.

In Mumbai, Maansi, 11, brims with excitement as she talks about school. She loves science and adores her teachers because, she explains, they help everyone develop the things they’re good at. Her family’s home is well lit, and there are computers at school.

15-year-old Manisha can but recall how much fun she had when she attended school – before she had to drop out and work as a maid to help her family. “Everyone was moving forward,” she says, fighting back tears. “I got left behind.” From her settlement of dimly lit corrugated-tin shacks and dirt lanes, Manisha can look up at Maansi’s modern apartment building.

When 9-year-old Rahma gets up every morning, she turns on the tap in her tiled bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. She can barely fathom that other children in Cairo lack such amenities. But without a tap in her family’s shanty, 17-year-old Wafa must fetch water from a public standpipe in a polluted lot. She carries the water in buckets, from which family members wash themselves. They never manage to feel quite hygienic, she says. And using the communal latrine is an ordeal: “I get worried someone will see me, so I don’t go.”

The stories of Maansi, Manisha, Rahma, and Wafa are part of 2 Lives: 2 Miles Apart, a series of brief documentaries by young filmmakers. They show the disparate circumstances in which children are growing up – even short distances from one another.

Manisha, 15, dropped out of school to help support her family. Courtesy of UNICEF

The Rio+20 Conference will consider, among other things, what it takes to ensure that cities grow in a sustainable way. The transformations it envisions present an opportunity to extend the benefits of development to those currently excluded, by making sure that social support is a feature of the green economy.

The world needs children like Manisha and Wafa – just as much as their more fortunate neighbours – to feel secure in their homes and safe in their streets, to grow up healthy and not have to leave school – in other words, to realize their shared right to develop to their full potential. The rewards will accrue not only to these children, but also to future generations. What better investment in sustainability.


Anna Grojec is a consulting editor at UNICEF. The views expressed in this blog post are hers and do not necessarily represent UNICEF’s positions.

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