UNICEF Report on children’s wellbeing

Nov 07

  1. Introduction:
  •  The United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, issued a report in February 2007called: An Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries. And I was saddened, although not surprised, that the country I have lived in almost all my life, and where I began to bring up 3 children, the UK, came 21st out of 21. And the US was 20th.
  •  South Africa prides itself on being the most economically advanced nation in Africa. Well, today I want to have a look the report’s findings, which show what is happening to our children in the most economically advanced nations in the world. And we need to watch out that South African society, including Muslim South African society, does not develop in the same way as the broader British society.
  •  UNICEF produces other reports, such as their ‘Progress of Nations report, which focuses on how countries fare in meeting basic needs: nutrition, immunization, primary school involvement. But this is of limited relevance where most basic needs are met for vast majority. Hence the need for this report.
  •  The Prophet Muhammad told his companions: The best of you is the one who is best with his family, and, among you, I am best to my family. ‘
  •  And the UNCEF report states: ‘The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies in which they were born’
  • Omar Ibn al-Khattab (RAA) used to say (narrated by Ahmad): “Review Evaluate and assess yourself before you are assessed. Weigh your deeds before they are weighed against you, and prepare yourself for the day where you will be fully exposed.”
  • So let’s look at what is reviewed in the report, and see how much the children in the report are being attended to.

What is measured by the report:

The report focuses on children age 11-15, mainly in Europe and the US.

It is important to note the data is not subdivided further according to race or religion, so we cannot see specifically how the Muslim children in the countries are doing in comparison to their compatriots.

6 dimensions of wellbeing are measured:

Material wellbeing –

    • How well off are the households with children

Health and safety –

    • infant mortality,
    • low birth weight,
    • immunization rates
    • no measure of mental and emotional health

Educational well being

    • Achievement in Maths and English
    • how many age 15-19 stay in education
    • No measurements for pre-school provision for 3-6 year olds, or amount and quality of day-care for 0-2 year olds – important as there is much controversy in the richer countries about different kinds of day care for children under the age of 2.

Relationships with family and peers

Behaviours and Risks – like diet, alcohol, teenage pregnancies.

Subjective wellbeing – how happy do the children feel.

I’ll take a look at a few of the dimensions, and the indicators within each dimension but is important to note that these dimensions must be looked at together to give a bigger picture.


Dimension 1: Material wellbeing:

Out of 21 countries, Norway and Sweden were first and second. Poland was last. But the UK and US were near the bottom too

The indicators that were considered useful to measure this were:

  • Relative income poverty – % of children living in homes wih equivalent income below 50% of the national media
  • The % of homes without an employed adult
  • And percentage of children reporting deprivation, in terms of low family affluence or few educational resources.

Relative income poverty: with the UK and US being increasingly unequal societies, a higher percentage of children will feel relatively deprived. Every day, the poorer children perceive a large difference between their lives and the lives of those around them. Particularly in an era where we now feel part of a global village: Children in New Hampshire in the US or Madrid in Spain – Or Lagos in Nigeria or Mexico City in Mexico  are all watching the same programmes –  and the same commercials. Anecdote: Delhi – everyone living on the street and right in front of them was massive poster on a building for luxury cruise. Would have been beyond their imagination.

UNICEF also looked at houses without an employed adult, to get a sense of whether children were actually deprived, or just felt it. Studies have logically found that children who grow up without an employed adult are more likely to be deprived of material goods. Japan has the highest proportion of households with children and with employed adult – and supposedly are the country least deprived of material goods – but are their children any happier?  A shocking 30% of young people in Japan agreed with the statement ‘ I feel lonely’.

And finally, the Family Affluence scale was used to measure how many resources children had – for example, how many books in the house, or whether they had to share a bedroom. Amazingly, 1 in 8 households in the US had less than 10 books in the house – we are not told how many books the other 7 out of 8 households have!  But the negative view of sharing a bedroom reflects the AngloSaxon view of progress – the more wealthy you get, the less you see of each other and the more you must have your own things around you. Anecdote: one wealthy friend hardly saw her brother – grew up in sep wings of the house.

But the very word religion means ‘to bind together’: as Muslims we are meant to be bound together as immediate families, our extended family, and our wider communities.


Dimension 2: Relationships

With parents:

  • Percentage of 15 year olds who eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week.
    •  Again, UK and US are 18th and 19th out of 21. Right at the top are Italy and the Russian Federation. May seem an irrelevant statistic but:
    • Researchers at University of Minnesota found that the more frequently teenagers ate with their parents, the less likely to smoke drink, take drugs, get depressed
    • Umar Ibn AL-Khattab: Prophet said: ‘Eat together and not alone, for blessings come with company’


  • Proportion of children talking regularly with parents.
    • Italy and Russian Federation did well. US and UK better, at over 60%. Interestingly Israel had the lowest score on this one – the reason for this is not examined.
    • IN the UK there is an organisation called Talk to your baby, are trying to raise awareness of concentrating for at least some of the day on looking at, talking to and singing to babies. A childcare expert Sally Ward conducted an experiment with some parents in the late 1990s: she asked them to turn the television off for half an hour a day and talk to their children, The parents were keen to be helpful but had one panic stricken question: what shall we talk about?’
    • Consulting and talking with your children was modelled by Prophet Ibrahim. Sura 37 v101-2. “So we gave him the news of a forbearing son. Them, when his son was old enough to work with him, he said: O My son, I have seen in a dream that I am offering you in sacrifice to Allah. Now tell me what you think! The son said: o my father! Do as you were commanded. You will find me, if Allah so wills, to be one of the steadfast”

With friends

 11-15 year olds were asked ‘do you find your friends kind and helpful?’. The United Kingdom was right at the bottom, with over half finding them to be neither.

There is now government minister in the UK who is working on how to strongly encourage people to be kinder. And he is examining schemes both in Japan and the US, where people who do good works for others, like looking after an elderly person,  get community credits, that they can use when they need it – like when their own mother needs caring for

Aisha RAA reported: (Muslim) “The Prophet said Allah will not have mercy on the one who has no mercy on others.”


Dimension 3: Behaviours and risks

 Behaviour includes heath behaviour – simple things like eating breakfast, an old adage says ‘the most important meal of the day’. IN the high school where I used to work, some of the unruly children had eating breakfast as their target – as without food they could not concentrate. That was not because there was no food in the house – they just were not choosing to eat it and no-one was making them.

Other health behaviour that was measured includes eating fruit every day: only a quarter of young people in the UK did this – even though there is never a shortage of fruit in the shops – much of it comes form South Africa.

But the most worrying part was risky behaviour – smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, hazardous sexual activity, and becoming pregnant as a teenager.

Sura al Baqarah: “They will ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say: in both there is great evil as well as some benefit for man, but the evil they cause is greater than the benefit they bring. (V219)”

The Prophet saw said (Tabarani) Do your best in what I have commanded you to do and avoid completely what I have prohibited.”

But for the average child in the countries being measured, there is no clear behaviour either being promoted or prohibited.

Over a third of UK children between 11 and 15 had been drunk at least twice – and over a third had used cannabis

Two in 5 teenagers in UK had had sexual relationships by the time they were 15. And the high teenage pregnancy rates are a significant sign of how good young people feel about themselves – if they feel they have not much to lose, having a baby with some small government benefits following may seem a more attractive option.

And then there is violence and bullying. While the violence is on a different scale to what we have in South Africa, national studies in the OECD countries show that children who often witness violence between others in the home are more likely to go on  to be victims of violence themselves.


  1.  What is not in the report: Spiritual wellbeing

For a Muslim, this affects every part of their life – yet is excluded from the report totally. Individual dimensions are looked at, but the child and the adults bringing them up are not looked at as whole emotional and spiritual people.

It reminded me of a poem called the Blind Man and the Elephant. Each blind man catches hold of one bit of the animal (trunk, leg or tail, and on the basis of this works out what the elephant looks like. It is easy to latch on to one cause of the change of children’s behaviour, and fail to grasp the whole picture. This report attempts to capture the whole picture – but misses out any mention of a Creator.

Being a Muslim and practising our faith would affect our attitudes to material wellbeing, to relationships with family and friends – and to both risky and responsible behaviours.

One young lad from a big city in England was quoted as saying: “The richer we become as a society, the less mature young people need to be. Too many people expect the good things but don’t want to take responsibility.”



Eminent Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield: there are as many neurons on the human brain as there are trees in the Amazonian rainforest, and as many connections between those neurons as there are leaves on the trees. With such a remarkable network, it is highly unlikely that a single  environmental influence could cause much damage – just as in the Amazon jungle, the occasional drought heat wave or man with a chainsaw won’t affect anything.  But if many things go wrong, even an Amazon rainforest can be endangered. And many experts believe, – like Sue Palmer author of  ‘Toxic Childhood’  – that in the richer countries, particularly UK and US, we are dangerously close to that tipping point.

Recent cartoon in the New Yorker: shows a pair of exhausted parents  surrounded by global technology saying to their children: we are feeling overwhelmed, you will have to bring yourself up

Need to watch out that South African society, particularly Muslim South African society as it develops does not develop in the same way as the broader British society.

Best thing we can do is to nurture the whole child: emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. And we must demonstrate and teach them Islamic values and the reasons for them, so that they can be confident of whom they are in whatever society they end up.

There is a maxim strongly believed in by many: To improve something, first measure it. Well they have measured all kinds of things and the findings are interesting albeit a little disconcerting. And the findings will be used to allocate resources and direct policy, whether it is policies on education, kindness or happiness.

But the most important thing has not been measured and that is something that will impact every other area: have we helped our children to re-discover their fitra, that innate childhood belief in God and His message that should positively affect every other lifestyle choice made by both parents and children.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *