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Surge in poverty-stricken children in Eastern Europe, Central Asia

A mother and her child live in a refugee centre in Lviv after they were forced to flee violence in Zaporizhska, Ukraine.

© UNICEF/Alexsey Filippov

A mother and her child live in a refugee centre in Lviv after they were forced to flee violence in Zaporizhska, Ukraine.

Rising inflation and the Ukraine war have triggered a 19 per cent increase in child poverty across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to a study by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), published on Monday, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The impact of the war in Ukraine and subsequent economic downturn on child poverty in eastern Europe and Central Asia, warns that ripple effects of the surge could result in a steep rise in school dropouts and infant mortality.

Data from 22 countries across the region shows that children are bearing the heaviest burden of the economic crisis stemming from Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine.

While they make up only 25 per cent of the population, they account for nearly 40 per cent of the additional 10.4 million people forced into poverty this year.

Children all over the region are being swept up in this war’s terrible wake”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Afshan Khan. 

Rooted in war

Sparked by the Ukraine war and a cost-of-living crisis across the region, Russia accounts for nearly three-quarters of the increase in child poverty – with an additional 2.8 million now living in households below the poverty line.

Ukraine is home to half a million additional children living in poverty, the second largest share, followed by Romania, where there has been an increase of 110,000, the study notes.

“Beyond the obvious horrors of war – the killing and maiming of children, mass displacement – the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine are having a devastating impact on children across eastern Europe and Central Asia”, said Ms. Khan. 

Beyond money woes 

The consequences of child poverty stretch far beyond families living in financial distress.

The sharp increase could result in an additional 4,500 babies dying before their first birthdays and learning losses could mean an extra 117,000 dropping out of school this year alone, the study says.

“If we don’t support these children and families now, the steep rise in child poverty will almost certainly result in lost lives, lost learning, and lost futures”, warned the UNICEF official.

Cycle of poverty

The poorer a family is, the higher the proportion of income that must go towards food, fuel, and other necessities.

When the cost of basic goods soars, the money available to meet other needs such as healthcare and education, falls, the study points out.

The subsequent cost-of-living crisis means that the poorest children are even less likely to access essential services, and are more at risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse.

And for many, childhood poverty lasts a lifetime, perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of hardship and deprivation.

When governments reduce public expenditure, raise taxes, or add austerity measures to boost their economies, they diminish support services for those that depend on it.

“Austerity measures will hurt children most of all – plunging even more children into poverty and making it harder for families who are already struggling”, said Ms. Khan.

Plan for assistance

The study makes recommendations to help those in financial distress, such as providing universal cash benefits for children; expanding social assistance to families with children in need; and protecting social spending.

It also suggests supporting health, nutrition, and social care services to pregnant mothers, infants, and preschoolers as well as introducing price regulations on basic food items for families.

Meanwhile, UNICEF has partnered with the EU Commission and several EU countries to pilot the EU Child Guarantee initiative to mitigate the impact of poverty on children.

Strong response needed

With more children and families being pushed into poverty, a robust response is essential, across the region.

UNICEF is calling for expanded support to strengthen social protection systems in high and middle-income countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and social protection programme funding for vulnerable children and families.

“We have to protect and expand social support for vulnerable families before the situation gets any worse”, underscored the UNICEF Regional Director.