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World View : The Littlest Victims of Global 'Progress' : Ironically, children are being threatened by economic reforms, the new politics and advances in technology.


BANGKOK, Thailand — Under the bridge in Klong Toey's massive slum and around Bangkok's railway station, Thai boys gather nightly. Preteen labor is illegal in Thailand, but these kids work in shoe factories, gas stations or fisheries, even heavy labor. Others are child prostitutes or live off petty crime. Many are homeless.

The boys roughhouse, play with popguns and wait for "tricks," victims or employers who look for cheap labor at the rail station. Sniffing glue and paint thinner is now chronic in this age group.

Child labor has long been a problem in Asia, but social workers claim figures are soaring, despite government efforts, as Thailand presses to join the list of newly industrialized countries, or NICs.

"Becoming an NIC is destroying the social fabric of this society. And the kids are paying the highest price," said Rotjana Phraesrithong of the Foundation for Slum Child Care in Klong Toey.


In Latvia, the children show up in Riga's quaintly restored old town in the late afternoon. None looks older than about 7. Among a group of four boys, one has no socks and all wear only light sweaters, despite the cold in northern Europe.

With their hands outstretched, the boys trail people leaving Latvia's new privatized hotels, boutiques and restaurants. Late at night, they loiter under the bright lights of a new casino. Both Latvian and Russian children now beg on Riga's streets, explained Dmitri Yeryomin, a young interpreter, with embarrassment.

"This is all new to us. We didn't have beggars in the past. In the Communist days, the state took care of everyone," Yeryomin added. "Now it's everyone for himself."


For all of its scientific and technical advances, the world at the end of the 20th Century is producing millions of children who have little hope of normal life, much less of leading the world into the 21st.

And many of the underlying causes today are otherwise-heralded forces of global change: new free markets, new political systems and new rights of people to speak, act or associate freely, and of nations to determine their own destiny.

"The view that the Cold War has gone out with a whimper rather than a bang, and that one side has won with hardly a shot being fired, is the first and most dangerous placebo of the new age," according to "The State of the World's Children 1994," the yearly survey of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF). (See chart on Page 5.)

"The Cold War has been more destructive than any war in human history; it has been a war in which there have been no winners and a war of which the severest consequences may yet be to come."

The picture is not all bleak, of course. Unprecedented breakthroughs were made during the Cold War. Indeed, until the late 1980s the 3 billion children worldwide had never been better off by many measures.

Since World War II, deaths of children under 5 have been halved. The number of Third World children who start school has risen from less than half to more than 75%--despite a doubling of the population. And 60% of rural families now have access to safe water--up from less than 10%, UNICEF said.

Just since the mid-1980s, the largest peacetime collaboration in history has provided child immunization throughout the developing world. The program saves about 10,000 lives a day, more than 3 million a year, UNICEF reports. Deaths from measles, for example, dropped from 2.5 million in 1980 to about a million a year now.

Overall, 70% to 80% of all children now have their basic needs in health and sanitation met, according to Save the Children. Laws on issues such as maternity leave and working conditions are also giving new attention and weight to children's rights worldwide.

Among the most progressive is Norway's law allowing a mother to take a year off work at 80% pay after birth--or the same conditions for a father if the mother opts to return to work.

"We have made more global human progress in the last 50 years than in the previous 2000. Three-quarters of the world's population now enjoy the basics of a life of dignity, productivity and health," said James P. Grant, UNICEF's executive director.

At the same time, however, many changes since the great, global, sociopolitical upheaval that began in 1989 are seriously threatening progress. The new world order is turning out to be particularly hard on the young.

First and foremost, children are increasingly victims in a growing pattern of internal urban conflict on four continents.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the plight of 5-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, her body torn by shrapnel in an attack that killed her mother, inspired an airlift last summer--though not until after hundreds of other children died. (Despite treatment in London, Irma was paralyzed.)

Post-Cold War turmoil is also leaving deep scars on children from tiny Tajikistan in the former Soviet bloc to huge Zaire in the belly of Africa, from exotic Kashmir to mountainous Afghanistan.

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