Tue, 06 May 2003

RI releases bleak report on child welfare

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Nusa Dua, Bali

Indonesia released on Monday its country report on child welfare issues at a regional ministerial meeting on children here, presenting a gloomy picture of Indonesia's future generation.

Its country report said that the number of Indonesians living in poverty had swelled by 13 million in 1999, two years after the economic crisis hit the country.

Poverty increases the likelihood of children dropping out of school, and makes basic health services unaffordable and leads to a greater number of malnourished children.

"All these have created conditions that may produce a lost generation" in the long run," said the country report, which was prepared by the Ministry of Health.

The report was presented during Monday's opening of the sixth East Asia and Pacific Ministerial Consultation meeting on children at the Nusa Dua hotel resort in Bali.

Attended by more than 20 countries and opened by President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the three-day meeting focuses on issues like health, trafficking of children for sex, exploitation, and on HIV/AIDS.

Indonesia's dismal picture on these issues marked a reverse in a three-decade success story before the 1997 crisis, when its economy was one of the fastest growing in the world.

The prosperous economy helped Indonesia eradicate polio with no new cases reported since 1996, the government said in its report.

Still many Indonesian infants continue to grow up in poor health conditions today.

"On average, an Indonesian child under five spends two and a half months a year with a cough, 40 days a year with a fever, and two weeks a year with diarrhea," said the government in its report.

Malnutrition among children also remains a problem with little progress to report on. In fact, between 1992 and 1998 severe malnutrition actually increased. "There has been no progress in reducing the prevalence of low birth weight; between 1991 and 1997 this has remained about 7 percent and is likely underestimated," the country report said.

Further up the age group, the government has found that 10 percent of all smokers in Indonesia had started the habit before the age of 14. Around 69 percent began to smoke before they have reached 19 years, worse compared to the 65 percent in 1995.

On maternal mortality, Unicef's Steven Allen said that 400 out of 100,000 mothers in Indonesia "die from the activity of giving new life".

Quoting data from the national census in 2000, Megawati said about 20 percent of Indonesia's 203 million people were children under 10 years old. Those under 20 years account for 40 percent of the population.

"I believe no one among us in Indonesia will underestimate the importance of those figures. We are determined to develop their potential rather than treat them as a burden," she said.

However economists said the state budget was too short funded to foster economic growth and reduce poverty or fund welfare projects that would help the children.

Critics said the government spent too much on paying billions of U.S. dollars in domestic debts, which should have been the burden of businessmen that borrowed the money from the state.

Recent plans to purchase billions of U.S. dollars in military hardware meanwhile was hailed as upping Indonesia's military might and lending diplomatic efforts more weight.

But Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy urged countries to invest in children. "The eradication of poverty, the fostering of peace, the nurturing of human potential, all start with one thing: investing in children," she said.