A shocking U.S. Border Patrol video showed human smugglers dropping two unaccompanied children—sisters ages 3 and 5 from Ecuador—over a 14-foot section of the border fence in the New Mexico desert.1 The smugglers ran off, leaving the young girls alone and stranded.
Another young mother from Central America thought she was on the cusp of giving her 9-year-old daughter a better life in the United States. They’d traveled a long, perilous journey and had just one more hurdle to cross: the Rio Grande River separating Mexico from Texas. Tragically, it was a step too far. The little girl apparently drowned before reaching the other side, NBC News reported.2
Desperate to escape extreme poverty and surging gang violence in their native countries, thousands of migrant children from Latin America continue to flock to the U.S. southern border, with or without their parents. The journey is fraught with dangers that include becoming prey for human traffickers and ruthless drug cartels en route.3 Every day in Spring 2021, U.S. border officials were detaining more than 600 unaccompanied migrant children trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, with many children risking their lives to do so.4 According to a CNN report in April 2021, there were more than 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the custody of U.S. officials at that time.5
The plight and peril of migrant children seeking refuge in the U.S. is a stark reminder that “children in crisis” are not restricted to far-away countries.
Children are in crisis right on our doorstep, in our own neighborhoods, wherever we live in the world. And the problem is growing worse. Until we take steps to protect and prioritize children, their neglect will be a shameful legacy for the nations of our world.
The sight is too much to bear for many Western visitors: A frantic teenage mother, with a newborn strapped to her back, looking for a handout to feed herself and keep her tiny baby alive.
1.2 billion children
worldwide are considered “at risk,” vulnerable to a host of calamities, abuse, hunger and diseases.
But this real-life scene often isn’t what it appears to be. The baby is not hers. She has actually rented the newborn from its mother or guardian so that her pleas for help solicit greater sympathy from passersby.
Renting out “babies-to-beg” is a common practice in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, where hundreds of children and teenagers from outlying areas—some with parents, many without—descend on the city in the hopes of scraping together money for food. Every day the ritual is the same: hustle, beg, scavenge or steal to survive.
If she’s fortunate, this desperate teenage girl, who is extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution, will solicit enough sympathy to purchase a Rolex. Not the luxury wristwatch Rolex you and I might think of, but an egg-filled chapatti, similar to a burrito, that’s served on nearly every street corner.
Her plight and the fate of the baby she carries on her back are intertwined. Both face a life—likely a very brief life—of perpetual struggle. Both face the threat of abandonment and exploitation. Both girls are continually at risk.
That so many of the world’s children in crisis live without compassionate considerations or safeguards from harm is tantamount to being one the world’s greatest “badges of shame.”
They’re among the estimated 1.2 billion children worldwide who are considered “at risk,” vulnerable to a host of calamities, abuse, hunger and diseases—a toxic combination driven largely by poverty and supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic.6
According to Save the Children, more than half the world’s children are at risk of poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls.7 A report by the international charity states that one billion children live in poverty, 240 million live in areas impacted by conflict, and 575 million girls live in countries where discrimination against women and girls is common.
According to Save the Children, Singapore and Slovenia are the best places to be a child, where childhood is most protected.8 In contrast, Save the Children’s latest Global Childhood Report for 2021, “The Toughest Places To Be A Child,” lists 10 sub-Saharan African nations as the worst places to be a child, “where childhood is most threatened.”9
Perhaps surprisingly to some of our readers, the United States is ranked 43rd on the list, behind Russia, Lebanon and Belarus. According to Save the Children’s report, “The United States badly trails many other advanced countries in helping children reach their full potential.” Nonetheless, it ranks among the top 47 countries in the world where relatively few children miss out on their childhoods. The report states, “Countries with similar scores include Bahrain, China, Montenegro, Qatar, Russia, and Slovakia.”10
Save the Children says millions of children are being “robbed of the childhoods they deserve.” The agency states that every child has a right to childhood free from fear, safe from violence, protected from abuse and exploitation.
The concept of childhood is defined in the (U.N.) Convention on the Rights of the Child. It represents a shared vision of childhood: healthy children in school and at play, growing strong and confident with the love and encouragement of their family and an extended community of caring adults, gradually taking on the responsibilities of adulthood.11
But, the report acknowledges, “This ideal contrasts starkly with the childhood many experience.”12
Fatherless Kids in Crisis: The ‘Epidemic’ of the Street Children
Around the world, one of the most critical issues affecting children is the surge in the number of kids living on the streets, with no one to protect them or care for them.
Child abandonment is a worldwide crisis. Globally, the “epidemic” of absent fathers, especially, is a major cause of child neglect, often leaving children without a male role model, protector and provider.13
Combined with the tribal practice of having multiple wives or concubines, it’s not unusual in some African countries for one man to produce upwards of 30 children.14 Many of these children grow up never having any relationship with their father, or even knowing who their father is.
A report published in 2020 by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect revealed that child neglect and sexual violence were the biggest issues facing kids growing up in Uganda, one of the lowest-ranking countries.15 In 2015, a study of street children in the capital city of Kampala revealed that most kids, the large majority being boys, began their life on the streets between the ages of 5 and 10. Seven out of every 10 street kids had come to Kampala by public taxi or bus. They came for a myriad of reasons. Some came to find work and advance their prospects; others were orphans or victims of abuse or neglect who’d fled horrible home environments; and then there were the rebels and runaways. Almost two-thirds of the kids had lived on the streets for at least a year, and many of them had been on the streets for four years or more. More than half of the children reported they’d been physically abused on the streets, and one in every four said they’d suffered sexual abuse.
Many street boys have nothing more than torn rags or sackcloth to wear as clothes and no shoes on their feet, leaving them vulnerable to puncture wounds that quickly become infected, causing their feet to swell grotesquely. Many of them carry a constant companion tucked inside their ragged clothing—a plastic bottle containing fuel, dipped in a filthy piece of cloth. Every few minutes, they inhale the fumes from the bottle, their eyes floating upwards as the cheap “drug” takes effect. It’s the only way they know to dull their senses and take away the pain and suffering in their lives.
I once met a boy named Kandwanaho who told me how he searches the alleys of Kampala from daybreak until dusk, collecting discarded cardboard boxes. He visits the alleyways behind the local market stalls and shops, picking up boxes that once held soap, sodas or other goods. Sometimes, he’ll “strike gold” and find a giant TV box. When he’s gathered several boxes, he takes them to the sprawling downtown marketplace, known as Owino Market, and sells the cardboard to the shoe salesmen. They cut the cardboard into sole-size pieces and slide the card into the footwear to help the shoes keep their shape. If Kandwanaho works a 12-hour shift, he makes just over one dollar.
There are times he roams the streets alone all day—dodging taxis, stubbing his bare toes on the cracked roads, inhaling exhaust fumes, hoarse from thirst—and does not find a single box to recycle. On those days, he has nothing to eat unless he dives into the garbage piles to search for a scrap of anything edible among the competing stray dogs and cockroaches.
For Kandwanaho, and many like him, the most troubling time is nightfall as the city’s hectic rhythm subsides. It’s as if everyone is returning home, except for the kids who live on the streets. They have nobody, and nowhere to call home. The dimming light is their cue to find a place in a drainage ditch or empty shack for the night. It’s their hour to poke around the trash piles for any bits of food ditched at the end of the day. As the light fades, their reality mirrors the approaching darkness.
In Uganda, because street boys are viewed by many business owners as thieves and troublemakers, they’re chased off, beaten up and, in extreme cases, even murdered. The reality that human life is cheap and expendable on Kampala’s volatile streets is clearly evident.
As the lowest of the low, street kids are most often the “whipping boys” when anything goes wrong. Kandwanaho told me that a group of his friends were once caught stealing copper pipes they intended to sell. They were kicked in the head, beaten unconscious, soaked in gasoline and set alight, Kandwanaho recalled tearfully. At their burial in a paupers’ graveyard, he and other street boys were the only mourners present.
Child Sacrifice: Boy’s Head ‘Sold by Father For $2,000’
Other street boys, Kandwanaho told me, fall victim to Uganda’s sinister underworld of child sacrifice. With its roots in witchcraft, child sacrifice is still practiced among both the poor and the rich. Wealthy businessmen abduct a young street boy with few physical blemishes, have him beheaded and then bury the boy’s head under the foundation of a new building “to bring them luck” with their new money-making venture, Kandwanaho said.
A report by ABC Newstells the story of a young mother who found the headless body of her 17-month-old son in a shallow grave in a banana plantation in her rural village near the Congo border. “I pulled my son’s body out of the soil,” she said. “I realized he had no head.” The child’s killer turned out to be his own father, who was given $2,000 by a rich businessman in return for the boy’s head.16
Atrocities against street children are not confined to any single country. In Brazil, news reports tell of organized “death squads” that deliberately seek out and murder street children viewed as nothing more than garbage littering the streets.17
Kandwanaho showed me where his friends sometimes sleep inside giant, used tractor tires, piled up in a yard. One night, they were swept up in a police “clean-up” operation and transported to a children’s detention center outside Kampala. Every year, hundreds of street kids end up in “remand” centers, juvenile prisons, where they can be detained for months or even years without a court hearing. Their crime? Often, it’s just living or begging on the streets and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nonprofit organizations such as Sixty Feet seek to help children in the prison facilities. Their vision is to “provide a Gospel-centered continuum of care for critically vulnerable children that includes minimizing contact with the law, providing for critical needs, and supporting long-term restoration.”18
In Uganda, many street kids are from the northern Karamojong tribe.19 They’ve fled the underdeveloped, famine-prone region to come to the capital, where they live in crowded slums, such as the Katwe slum featured in the Disney movie Queen of Katwe, and beg at the intersections. These beautiful children, especially the girls, are extremely vulnerable to sexual predators.
Every month, scores of Karamojong children and families arrive in Kampala, putting more pressure on the slums and increasing the number of kids competing for handouts.
Kids as young as 3 wander along the streets, their hands outstretched, narrowly avoiding the perilous open drainage ditches. If they collect a few thousand Ugandan shillings, maybe 50 cents or a dollar, it goes straight to their parent or someone posing as a parent. Mostly, though, they’re ignored by passers-by and motorists, many of whom believe they’re simply feeding the problem and incentivizing begging if they give a handout.
This exodus of children from poorer, rural areas to the cities in search of food and work is not unique to Uganda. It’s a global phenomenon in poor, underdeveloped countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Children at Risk of Starvation
When crops fail due to drought or other calamity, or work opportunities dry up, children and their parents often face a stark choice: move… or starve.
Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of young children around the world suffering acute malnutrition, a polite term for starvation, was expected to skyrocket by 20 percent in 2020, according to a report by the U.N.20 That’s an additional 10 million starving children worldwide. “Children living on the streets are particularly at risk,” the report says.
In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I’ve watched children eat “mud cakes,” sun-dried cakes made from dirt mixed with salt, water and a little margarine.21 Mud cakes are a symbol of the despair children face in this Caribbean island nation—a sense of hopelessness that continues into adulthood.
“Ask a Haitian, ‘what do you think you’ll be doing in five years?’ and he will laugh,” a Haitian doctor told me. “Our people do not think about tomorrow; we do not plan for the future. We live from day to day. We are a people in survival mode.”
The Texas-based agency has distributed food to tens of thousands of families on the edge of starvation in Asia and Africa, filling a critical gap for parents facing the near-impossible task of feeding their children amid total loss of income and with no safety net to fall back on. “The situation in our village is terrible,” one parent told GFA World. “We don’t have any work and we’re unable to provide food.”
Child hunger is also growing in rich nations, such as the U.S., where more than 11 million children live in “food insecure” homes and don’t have enough to eat, according to the U.S. Government.22 A staggering 18 million children in the U.S. could go hungry in 2021 because of the pandemic’s economic impact, according to the No Kid Hungry campaign.23 In the U.K., 1.8 million school-age children—one in every five kids—is at risk of hunger.24
Thirsty? How About a Cup of Feces-contaminated Water?
Hunger is dreadful, but for millions of children, the most immediate threat to their health and survival is the lack of safe drinking water. A staggering 2 billion people, mostly in Africa and Asia, get their drinking water from feces-contaminated ponds and watering holes, leading to often-fatal diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Children under the age of 5 are the most at-risk.25
The World Health Organization (WHO) says nearly one in every three people in the world doesn’t have access to safe drinking water,26 and the U.N. predicts that by the year 2050 up to 5.7 billion people worldwide could be affected by water shortages.27 Drinking contaminated water can lead to many deadly diseases, such as typhoid, hepatitis A, and diarrhea. Globally, diarrhea kills almost 2,200 children every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).28
Organizations like World Vision and GFA World have made clean drinking water a top priority.
The organization’s Jesus Wells supply safe drinking water to approximately 37.5 million people across Asia—roughly equivalent to the entire population of California.
“We offer clean, life-giving water to all people,” says GFA World founder, K.P. Yohannan (Metropolitan Yohan). “The Lord has used our efforts to bring clean water to the suffering. They receive healthy, life-sustaining support. This gift of free water is one more way we are able to demonstrate the love of Jesus for those in need.”30
Jesus Wells are deep wells, drilled in remote villages in Asia where girls often have to trek miles on foot every day to the nearest watering hole or pond to fetch water, putting themselves at risk of sexual assault and even tiger attacks.
“Our family members were suffering from diarrhea and other [waterborne] diseases,” says Arnab, father of three girls and a boy, describing the difference a Jesus Well has made in his village. “Our children who were sick are healthy now.”31
Children at Risk of Slavery
In addition to trafficking for sex and forced marriage, children worldwide are also highly vulnerable to labor exploitation and modern-day slavery.
Around the world, 152 million children as young as five are engaged in some form of child labor. More than 4 million children work in factories, sweatshops, brick-making kilns, hazardous mining operations, rice fields, domestic servitude and other exploitive, forced labor.41
In Southeast Asia, 13-year-old Min Min searches for precious stones at a quarry. In 2020, at least 160 people were killed by a mudslide at a jade mine in the region where he lives. “We risk our lives for these stones,” Min Min said. “A man died last night … I saw it with my own eyes.”42
Because of the dire economic situation in Haiti, many young children are turned out of their homes by parents who can’t afford to feed them. Often, these children—some younger than 10 years old—enter into domestic servitude, a form of child slavery, with another family.
Facing neglect and physical abuse, these children are known as “rest avek,” translated “stay with,” and are treated essentially as slaves, expected to rise early each day to do the most menial chores.
These real-life Cinderellas don’t have the opportunity to attend school, so they have virtually no chance of escaping their situation.
“Haitians dream of escape,” one Haitian man in the capital Port-au-Prince told me. “If you look at Haitian paintings, many of them depict the ocean. The ocean represents escape… liberty. For Haitians, the outside world is paradise; Haiti is hell.”
But for Haiti’s “rest avek” children and millions more trapped in exploitive labor around the world, there is no escape.
In Asia, nine-year-old Lakshmi worked in a factory as a cigarette roller. But it’s her 10-year-old sister she’s most worried about.
“Every morning at 7 a.m. she goes to the bonded labor man, and every night at 9 p.m. she comes home,” Lakshmi said. “He treats her badly. He hits her if he thinks she’s working slowly, or, if she talks to the other children, he yells at her. He comes looking for her if she’s sick and can’t go to work."
“I don’t care about school or playing. I don’t care about any of that. All I want is to bring my sister home. For 600 rupees [about $8] I can bring her home—that is our only chance to get her back. We don’t have 600 rupees … we will never have 600 rupees.”43
A better life seems like a far-fetched dream to children like Lakshmi and her sister in Asia. At the root of their despair is grinding poverty.
But there is hope.
Working with community leaders, solutions like basic health care, food, clean water and educational and community service opportunities help break the cycle of generational poverty.
In the next decade, Yohannan says, he wants to see 500,000 at-risk children in some of the world’s most desperate places enrolled in the program—and his organization invites people to sponsor a child, or more than one child, to help set them free from the curse of poverty and its childhood-ravaging effects.
Redeeming Children in Crisis
Our world bears a great “badge of shame” for its appalling neglect of and cruel injustice toward children in every nation, on every continent. But there’s an opportunity for redemption—and each of us can do our part.
In Kampala’s Kisenyi slum, one lonely street boy about 10 years old caught my attention as he sat in the dirt, wearing only torn rags. His leg was badly injured, split open, and flies had gathered on the gaping wound. He was inhaling fuel from a plastic bottle to dull the pain. As I crouched beside him, he told me he’d been run over by a car. The driver hadn’t bothered to stop. Maybe God put me on this earth for this very moment? It was, perhaps, the first time someone had actually cared about this boy, the first time he’d experienced God’s love through another human being. It was an honor to clean and bandage his wound. At that moment, God broke my heart for the suffering children of this world. But He did more than that—He showed me that every child reveals His beauty, even when they’re dressed in filthy rags and lying in the gutter.
As Mother Teresa is quoted as saying:
The child is the beauty of God present in the world, that greatest gift to a family.44