Building a Far Better Urban Future, Starting With Our Children

Today we are celebrating the 66th International Children’s Day—a very joyful date in the calendar. Yet living conditions for many children globally are not so optimistic, with many facing violence, hunger and chronic poverty.

Increasingly, these children live in cities. According to Phnom Penh municipality, 250,000 people live in urban poor settlements across Phnom Penh on less than $1.25 a day. They tend to have no land security, lack decent housing and have limited access to basic services such as water and sanitation, education and healthcare.

Despite this, cities continue to attract migrants from rural areas looking for better and more stable incomes in Cam­bodia’s fast-growing economy. The annual urban growth in the last decade has been on average 3.5 percent—the second largest in the region—and this trend is set to continue.

Cambodia’s society is young and so are the urban poor. Al­most 50 percent of Phnom Penh’s urban poor are under the age of 18. Although some im­provements need to be ac­knowledged, such as improved access to state water in many locations, poor settlements offer quite grim futures to their youngest residents.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by People in Need (PIN) and Unicef, every third urban poor child is chronically undernourished. These children are smaller, weaker and do worse at school (if they at­tend one) than children with a balanced diet, and who have ac­cess to safe water and sanitation.

According to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), approximately 30,000 families were relocated—often outside of Phnom Penh—during last 20 years. This takes a severe toll on the lifestyle and livelihoods of these residents, as access to the job market in the city is essential for urban poor families, and being pushed to the outskirts exacerbates problems of exclusion and inequality.

Friends International estimates there may be up to 20,000 children living on the streets of Phnom Penh. These children don’t go to school, have limited or no ties with their families and are exposed to violence and all other kinds of abuse.

So, we face the question of how to make Phnom Penh more child-friendly—a city where kids can thrive? This is a complex question not only for the City Hall but for Phnom Penh’s residents too, as urban poverty is multi-dimensional. Although imperfect, and often fragmented, good practices exist, and these could be adapted to Cambodia’s context if the political will exists.

Some positive examples in­clude the Indonesian Kampung Im­provement Pro­gram, which reached millions of urban poor dwellers in the last 40 years, providing them with secure land tenure, access to water and sanitation, decent shelter and access to healthcare.

In Brazil the “Bolsa Familia” subsidy program helped to lift out of poverty millions of urban (and rural) poor. In South Africa, the National Housing Subsidy Program has been quite effective in providing slum dwellers with housing subsidies to improve their living conditions.

In Cambodia we have some good practices, too. Although many urban poor communities in the outer districts of Phnom Penh still lack access to water supply and adequate sanitation, the extended water supply networks reach thousands of ur­ban poor households. Mu­nicipality-backed Urban Poor Develop­ment Fund has established more than 2,000 saving groups across Cam­bodia’s cities, which serve as important safety nets for vulnerable families.

However, we need stronger coordination and more political will from municipal authorities to address urban poverty in a comprehensive, transparent and inclusive manner. We must integrate children’s needs and rights in the urban planning po­licies and practice to ensure they have safe access to schools, water and sanitation, rec­­reational areas and, most im­portantly, safe housing they can call a home.

At PIN and STT, we call this approach Human Rights Based Spatial Planning, which puts people—their needs and rights — at the center of spatial development. We are convinced that looking through these lenses at urban development will help us to build a better urban future for children.

The municipality-led Urban Poor Poverty Reduction Work­ing Group, established last year, creates an important momentum for upgrading Phnom Penh’s most marginalized areas.

Because every child deserves a right to a safe living environment regardless of his or her economic, ethnic or social status, we hope that this important initiative will help build resilient communities and a more child-friendly Phnom Penh. Let’s re­member this when celebrating Inter­national Children’s Day this year.

Ee Sarom is the executive director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a Cambodian urban non-government organization based in Phnom Penh. Piotr Sasin is country director of People in Need Cambodia, a Czech nonprofit organization, also based in the capital.

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