The UK is one of the world’s worst developed countries for child hunger and sexual violence, according to a new report by children’s charity UNICEF.
Moderate or severe food insecurity — defined as a lack of secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food — was found to effect nearly 20% of children under 15 in the UK, significantly higher than the average of 12.7% for developed countries. The US was worse still, at 19.6%, while Japan had the best score, at only 1.4%.
Among the 28 European countries surveyed, the UK was second worst for sexual violence towards girls under the age of 15, with a huge 12.3% of respondents saying they had been affected, almost double the average across the countries of 6.3%. Taking 2015 population figures, that would amount to just over 1.5million children.
The report is “a wake-up-call that even in high-income countries progress does not benefit all children,” said Sarah Cook, Director of UNICEF Innocenti. “Higher incomes do not automatically lead to improved outcomes for all children, and may indeed deepen inequalities. Governments in all countries need to take action to ensure the gaps are reduced and progress is made to reach the SDGs for children,” she said.
According to the report, one in five children in high-income countries are living in relative income poverty. UNICEF based its analysis of 41 developed countries on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, identified as the most important for child well-being.
Obesity is considered a form of malnutrition, which goes some way to explaining the very high levels of food insecurity in countries like the UK and US where food is generally plentiful, although not necessarily healthy.
Since victims of sexual violence often choose not to report their experiences due to trauma and the fear of stigma or blame, the figures for abuse against children could be higher. The differences in attitudes, in each of these countries, towards openly reporting such experiences is likely also to have contributed to the results. According to UNICEF, there is currently very limited data on sexual violence against boys of the same age.
A debate on food insecurity was heard in Westminster in December 2016, in which Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck recalled her statement from 2014, that, “Food poverty is a clear consequence of the Government’s ideological assault on the social safety net and the people who rely on it. One hungry person is a complete disgrace, but thousands of hungry people are a national disaster.”
As a consequence, “The Government need[s] to measure and to begin to tackle household food insecurity. Such action is long overdue. Food-insecure households lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food, yet there has been no national measurement of household food insecurity in the UK for more than 10 years,” she said.
A House of Commons report from December 2016 estimated that 8.4 million people in the UK were living in households affected by food insecurity. Meanwhile, the number of three-day emergency food supplies given by Trussell Trust food banks rose from 2,814 in 2005/06 to a staggering 1,109,309 in 2015/16.
Other key findings from UNICEF’s report included:
- Neonatal mortality has dramatically fallen in most countries, and rates of adolescent suicide, teenage births and drunkenness are declining. However, 1 in 4 adolescents reports two or more mental health issues more than once a week.
- Even in the best-performing countries, including Japan and Finland, around one fifth of 15-year-olds do not reach minimum proficiency levels in reading, mathematics and science.
- On average, 14 per cent of adults surveyed in 17 rich countries believe that boys deserve preference for university education, and in the majority of these countries the belief is higher among males.
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