Urban Challenges and Childhood Inequalities

Children are among the population groups most severely affected by urban inequalities [i]. Although children and young people living in large cities do appear to enjoy better living conditions on the whole, the ‘urban advantage’ [ii] resulting from access to higher standards of education, services, employment, and quality of life remains elusive for many.


Children’s holistic development and well-being is significantly influenced by inequalities that place some at a disadvantage from the moment they are born. Various other factors, including the area in which they live, gender, ethnic background and disability, also affect children’s prospects for achieving physical, emotional and material well-being, and their likelihood of having a safe and protective environment in which to grow up.


When we analyze statistical evidence based on disaggregated [iii] and location-specific data, we see, for example, that a child’s right to life still depends on where he or she was born [iv].


‘By proposing an approach that focuses on equality, we are trying to emphasize the fact that there is an urgent need for public policy responses directed at the most disadvantaged children, in order to bring about more just, inclusive, and participative societies.’

Alberto Minujín, Executive Director, Equity for Children


How can we move toward greater equality at a local level?


To address this issue, Equity for Children has designed a measuring and monitoring system that allows us to evaluate levels of well-being and inequality among urban children. It also provides a basis for devising ways to directly influence local policies, thus promoting improvements in those services and institutions responsible for guaranteeing the rights of children and young people.


This initiative has now been rolled out in various Latin American cities [v]. The methodology has been designed to ensure that the system can be replicated in other locations and adapted to suit the local context. Taking the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as its point of departure, the tool allows us to understand the real implications of the deprivations that children experience throughout their lives on the basis of statistical evidence.


This exercise involves: constructing and analyzing a series of indicators that will allow the living conditions of children and young people in particular local contexts to be assessed [vi]; identifying sources of inequality associated with living conditions and membership of particular vulnerable groups; involving civil society in the monitoring and oversight of public policies aimed at children; and galvanizing both local government and the public to press for better programs and priority funding for the needs of local children.


The proposal is built around four components: understanding and adopting the strategy as a tool for social and political action; putting the strategy into practice in local and municipal settings; promoting childhood well-being; and identifying the forms of inequality that children and young people experience in their lives.


Using this tool means that we are taking effective action toward establishing social accountability, influencing local policies, strengthening civil society and making a real difference to the quality of life of children living in cities.


Knowledge and Evidence for Action


Evidence derived from reliable, disaggregated data allows us to develop, plan, monitor, and evaluate public policies that seek to improve children’s quality of life in a way that is relevant and methodologically sound. The challenge in many cases, in the words of Ángela Escallón Emiliani, Director of the Corona Foundation, is to ‘make better use of the available information, finding new ways to analyze the data that can feed into both a more informed governmental decision-making process and citizen empowerment, by giving people the information that can serve as a guide for action’ [vii]. The validated methodology for implementing the monitoring system [viii] includes the following broad phases: [ix]


  • Viability and requirements: This stage involves carrying out an evaluation of existing public policies and identifying information sources and potential partners by creating a map of key actors.
  • Implementation: The roles and functions of the various teams are defined, partnership agreements are put in place, and technical and expert committees are appointed.
  • Measurement and analysis: During this stage, the series of indicators is finalized and the information is gathered with a view to processing and analyzing the data. Subsequently, a report of the results and findings of the exercise is compiled.
  • Communication: A strategy for communication and implementation is established.
  • Monitoring and participation: in this last stage, a plan for action and social oversight is determined, and citizen participation is set in motion.


The Project Trajectory


The strategy described above draws upon the experiences of partner organizations which the Equity for Children team has studied, and in which we have played an active role. These include the Arcor Foundation’s [x] EduCometro initiative, and the influence of its experiences and conclusions with respect to child-friendly cities [xi]; the experiences of the Colombian Cómo Vamos city network in both its efforts to measure quality of life and its public policy advocacy work [xii]; the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s more recent work on the Urban95 initiative [xiii]; and various other examples, from Latin America and around the world, of the use of child-centered indicators [xiv] and studies examining forms of inequality and how these might be addressed [xv].


This system has already been tested in action in a number of cities that form part of the Latin American Network for Fair, Democratic and Sustainable Cities and Territories [xvi]. Through a series of activities aimed at raising awareness, providing training and fostering collaboration, different phases of the initiative have been put into practice in cities in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina. These activities were designed to ensure that projects include a child-centered perspective when evaluating quality of life in cities.


Developed in partnership with cities from the network behind the Cómo Vamos project [xvii], the system sets out a method for a thorough and participatory evaluation of the forms of inequality faced by children and young people at the local level. By focusing on a ‘bottom-up’ approach to social oversight, we have succeeded in creating positive synergies with ‘top-down’ national legislative programs.


Experience of using the tool in practice has shown, for example, that:


  • Children living in indigenous communities can be up to ten times more likely to die before the age of 5 than their peers from other neighborhoods.
  • Child mortality rates can be as much as five times greater in the most disadvantaged communities compared with other areas of the same city.
  • Sustainable outcomes depend on equality among children.


In the last few decades, a great deal of progress has been made toward protecting children’s rights and tackling the inequalities that they face. Most recently, the incorporation of children as a key target group into the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals is of great significance.


Our ability to create and sustain local environments that foster the well-being of children, their families, and communities depends to a great extent on the availability of monitoring and measuring systems that help us establish mechanisms for social accountability. Such mechanisms build the capacities of communities, local government, policymakers, and citizen councils, among other actors. Progress and monitoring of the SDGs will be greatly reliant on the adoption of these kinds of tools, which are needed to implement and evaluate public policies aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality that binds society’s most vulnerable groups.


Proposals such as this one are a practical expression of Equity for Children’s goal of bringing together the knowledge of academics, civil society, and local organisations and agencies in order to make an impact on local governance and strengthen the capacities of the various actors who have a role to play in child development. To bring about sustainable results, it is essential that the public policy agenda for children be guided by a focus on equality. To this end, we continue to carry out research and to design and implement initiatives in pursuit of our goal of reducing inequality —to ensure that all children are able to fully realize their rights.



Text by Mildred Ferrer (mildred.ferrer@newschool.edu) and Verónica Bagnoli Fernández (veronica.bagnoli@equidadparalainfancia.org).


[i] In the context of childhood, the term ‘inequality’ refers to the obstacles that prevent children from fully exercising their rights and reaching their development potential.

[ii] Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, including over a billion children.  Prevailing trends indicate that, by 2030, the majority of the urban population will be made up of children and young people under the age of 18. This presents a significant challenge, particularly for developing countries, where children are among those most affected by poverty.

[iii] Generally speaking, the aggregated data that can be analyzed to monitor progress at a national level cannot give us a true picture of the situation at a more local level, which can only be understood through the use of disaggregated data.  Inequalities within cities are often deeper than those between rural and urban populations, but national averages do not account for these variations.

[iv] This can be clearly seen in the disparities between different cities; for example, children in Bogotá are more than twice as likely to be malnourished than those in Bucaramanga or Medellín. That is why it is so important to explore the reasons behind these disparities. For more information, see Equidad para la Infancia (2015) Informe final: Colombia, Cómo Vamos en primera infancia [in Spanish]. Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/2015/06/principales-resultados-del-informe-sobre-primera-infancia-en-colombia/

[v] For more information, see: ‘Primera infancia cómo vamos: identificando desigualdades para impulsar la equidad en la infancia colombiana’ [In Spanish] Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Informe-final_Primera-infancia_todo.pdf

[vi] The proposal is a response to the need for ‘adequate and reliable data on children, broken down to allow us to identify any ways in which their ability to realize their rights is affected by discrimination or inequality… in order to measure progress… identify the existing problems and, above all, to be able to assess the overall progress of policies directed at children,” based on the principle that children’s rights “take priority over the rights of others’ and that the state has a duty and obligation to use ‘all of the funds at its disposal’ in order to guarantee these rights. (UNICEF, 2003). General Comment No.5, Committee on the Rights of the Child: General Measures of Implementation for the Convention on he Rights of the Child (articles 4 and 42, and paragraph 6 of article 44), 34th Session (2003), U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.7 at 377. http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/crc/crc-generalcomment5.html

[vii] Equidad para la Infancia (2015) Principales resultados del Informe sobre Primera Infancia en Colombia [in Spanish]. Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/2015/06/principales-resultados-del-informe-sobre-primera-infancia-en-colombia/

[viii] For more details on the conclusions drawn from this experience, see ‘Increasing childhood equality in cities: a practical intervention through policy, research and advocacy’ in the World Social Science Report 2016 Challenging Inequalities: Pathways to a Just World. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ulis/cgi-bin/ulis.pl?catno=245825&gp=1&mode=e&lin=1

[ix] For a more detailed account of the methodology used to implement this system, see the report by Equidad para la Infancia (2016), Medición y monitoreo local del bienestar y las inequidades en la infancia: Manual para réplica la experiencia [in Spanish].  Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Manual-r%C3%A9plica-Como-Vamos-Infancia.pdf

[x] EduCometro: La infancia como medida [in Spanish]. Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/2012/05/la-infancia-como-medida/

[xi] Equidad para la Infancia (2016) Ciudades para los/as niños/as y participación [in Spanish]. Available at: http://www.equidadparalainfancia.org/op-ciudades-para-losas-ninosas/

[xii] Red de Ciudades Cómo Vamos. For more information, see: http://redcomovamos.org/quienes-somos/

[xiii] Bernard van Leer Foundation (2015) Urban95 ‘Designing cities that support healthy child development’. Available at:


[xiv] Equidad para la Infancia (2014) Información para la Acción: Indicadores sobre la situación de la infancia [in Spanish]. Available at:


[xv] Equity for Children (2013) Approaches to Equity Report. Available at: http://www.equityforchildren.org/approaches-to-equity/approaches-to-equity-report/

[xvi] This network links more than 70 initiatives in 10 Latin American countries that are implementing a model for measuring quality of life developed in Colombia under the title of Ciudades Cómo Vamos. http://redciudades.net/

[xvii] The project grew out of collaborative work carried out by the Colombian “Cómo Vamos” network, coordinated by Equidad para la Infancia, and with the support of the Corona Foundation. The results of this study provide evidence relating to living conditions among children in early childhood and the forms of inequality that they face.

[xviii] For more of the conclusions drawn from this experience, see Minuín, A. (2016). Increasing childhood equality in cities: a practical intervention through policy, research and advocacy en The World Social Science Report, 2016: Challenging inequalities; pathways to a just world. Pp. 291-292.  International Social Science Council; University of Sussex (UK). Institute of Development Studies. Paris, France, UNESCO/ISSC ISBN: 978-92-3-100164-2.  Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ulis/cgi-bin/ulis.pl?catno=245825&gp=1&mode=e&lin=1


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