Get To Know The Issues

Get to know the issues

Understanding the world around you is the first step towards making positive change. From clean water, to child labour, you can explore important topics with our background issues information.

Get the facts and statistics you need to take action on the issues you care about. Explore our collection below to access detailed information about important social and global issues.

Child Labour
Clean Water

Child Labour

Shortly after Iqbal Masih was born in a small village in rural Pakistan, his father abandoned the family. Iqbal’s mother struggled to support her children as a housecleaner, but could not. When he was four years old, Iqbal was sold for $16 into bonded labour at a carpet factory. He worked 12 hours a day and was severely malnourished and mistreated.

When Iqbal was ten years old, a local labour rights organization helped him escape the factory. He was given a place at a school for freed child labourers in Lahore where he’d be safe. Iqbal began telling other child labourers about the law in Pakistan that made bonded labour illegal; they had never heard about this law. When children started to follow Iqbal’s example and escaped the factories, the owners threatened Iqbal and his family. But he didn’t back down. At age 12, he travelled to Sweden and the U.S. to speak out against child labour. When he returned to Pakistan in April, 1995, Iqbal was shot and killed.

Iqbal’s story reflects the lives of over 200 million children around the world who have been forced to give up school, sports, play and sometimes even their families and homes to work under dangerous, harmful and abusive conditions. After reading about Iqbal’s life and death, Craig Kielburger started Free The Children to continue what Iqbal had started: children helping children be free to live better lives.

  • There are 218 million child labourers around the world.
  • The number of child labourers fell by 16 percent between 2000 and 2004.
  • Around one in three children in Sub-Saharan Africa are workers.
  • An estimated 58 million children are not in school.
  • While the percentage of child labourers is decreasing across Africa, there are actually more children in the workforce now than 10 years ago.
  • Out of 10 working children, seven work in agriculture, two in services and one in industry.
  • It is estimated to take $760 billion over 20 years to eliminate child labour completely. The estimated benefit in terms of better education and health is over $4 trillion, a six-to-one difference.

A Closer Look

Many children all over the world do some kind of work. You might have an after-school job, or maybe you help out with chores around the house. This kind of work can be great: you build skills and earn extra cash. It’s not child labour. Only work that’s harmful to a child’s physical and mental development is considered to be child labour. One in seven children is exposed to this kind of labour, kept from school and the chance to improve the situation they were born into. They are often put in danger too. Every year, 22,000 children die from accidents related to their work. And that doesn’t say anything about the mental and emotional harm of being forced to work long, hard hours or experiencing things that no person should.

Child labour is defined as:

  • Work performed by children under the age of 18 (depending on the country)
  • Long hours of work on a regular or full-time basis
  • Abusive treatment by the employer
  • No access, or poor access, to education

Child labour includes selling things in the street or working in someone’s house as a domestic servant. In these cases, it’s not so much the work itself that’s bad, but how the child is treated, how many hours a day they work and whether the work prevents school attendance. In the worst cases, children are trapped in these situations by debts or outright slavery.

Then there are extreme kinds of child labour. One type of what are called the “worst forms” of child labour is “hazardous work,” work that is very difficult and harmful to the child’s physical development. This includes anything from carrying heavy loads and using dangerous machinery to spraying pesticides and working in unclean environments.

The other worst type of child labour is called “unconditional worst forms.” That means that no matter what the circumstances are, no matter how much is paid or how little the child does, it is illegal—even for adults. Every effort must be made to end this form of labour. This includes slavery, the buying and selling of a human being (called “human trafficking”), forced or bonded labour, using children in armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and involvement in drugs or any other illegal activity.

Each child has his or her own story. In some cases, such as Iqbal’s, poverty causes parents to sell their child to a factory or mine. Many street children in Vietnam, for example, sell gifts in the street, bringing all the money they earn to an unemployed parent or guardian. Unfortunately, because of high unemployment and labour laws, it can be easier for an adult to make a child work informally than for them to find a wage-paying job. Illness may also be a cause of child labour. A parent may be too sick to work, or worse. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS has orphaned 12 million children, taking the kids out of school to care for their siblings, run the household and earn an income any way they can.

Every child in the world has the right not to work. Every child deserves a fair chance to learn and be healthy. Unfortunately, many kids fall into the cracks and can’t get out by themselves. A global effort to fight child labour is incredibly important, and at its heart are the children who stand up and speak out for one another. One child’s voice can be drowned out, especially when it has been weakened by oppressive conditions and stronger adults. But even just a small group of brave kids can make a difference. Don’t let your voice go unheard. Speak up and speak out, stand beside kids around the world to fight for a fair chance to grow up healthily and happily.

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Clean Water

Water is the basis for life. No matter what the sport drinks say, water has no substitute. We need it to quench our thirst, grow our food, clean our bodies, clothes and homes. Many of us are lucky enough to have a running tap in our kitchens and bathrooms. It’s easy to forget how important water is, that literally every living thing needs a steady intake to survive, especially humans. But for over one billion people, access to water is a constant struggle.

Contaminated drinking water is one of the major causes of health problems for people in developing countries and the leading cause of death in children. Drinking water is often too far away in rural areas and if it’s not clean, drinking the water puts people at risk of serious waterborne diseases. Where there is no money or support for wells and clean water systems, it is common for people to have no other choice than to drink from the same water source where they bathe, go to the bathroom or take their animals to drink.

Globally, 443 million school days are missed annually because students had some kind of water-related illness. Two million children die each year from infections spread by dirty water or the lack of toilets. Cholera, typhoid and dysentery are three of these diseases you might have heard of before. When the water your body depends on is dirty, it’s almost impossible to stay healthy and grow strong.

  • Our bodies are 60 percent water. It is crucial to everything we do and you can’t be human without it!
  • 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.
  • 2.4 billion people lack access to proper sanitation facilities
  • Two million children die each year from infections spread by dirty water or the lack of toilets.
  • Between 1991 and 2000, over 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters. Ninety percent of those were water-related events.
  • In developing countries, more than 90 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial wastewater is dumped untreated into surface water.

A Closer Look

Water and Girls
Clean water especially helps girls. In many communities, it’s traditionally a daughter’s job to collect water from the nearest river each day. In rural places, this means hours and hours of walking with a heavy load. These girls usually miss school to collect water for their families. At the end of a day of chores like this, there’s little energy for studying – try carrying a couple buckets of water twice around the block before doing your homework! In India, it’s estimated that fetching water consumes 150 million workdays per year from women across the country, equivalent to a loss of 10 billion rupees, or $222 million CND. That’s not to mention what this extra work takes away from playing and having fun with friends, which is a big part of a healthy, happy childhood.

In most societies water is necessary for many activities that are the responsibility of women and girls: food preparation, care of animals, care of the sick, crop irrigation, personal hygiene, cleaning, washing and waste disposal. Water is the key element in the hundreds of things they do for their families and communities.

Free The Children attaches a water project to every school we build so girls can collect water on their way home from class. This saves valuable time and energy that can go toward studying and playing, and it makes sure the whole family is healthy because they’re drinking clean water instead of dirty water from the river.

Natural Disasters
Global climate change is causing unusual weather all over the world, but is especially threatening to countries near the equator. This area is already poor and the increasing droughts caused by climate change put millions of lives in danger. In a drought, there might not be a single drop of rain for many months on end. The crops that sustain billions of people can’t grow, animals can’t survive, and people have to travel farther and farther for water.

What’s more, in developing communities, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis are just as disastrous as droughts because they contaminate the local water source with human or animal waste. All the stored, safe water is lost. Natural disasters threaten every country and can’t be prevented. However, poverty makes a community even more vulnerable. The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 is an example of how difficult it can be to rebuild so many homes and livelihoods with so few resources, and how important quick support from the international community is.

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Every living thing depends on a steady intake of water to survive. Humans and animals need it for our bodies to function and plants depend on it to grow. Many of us are lucky enough to have a running tap in our kitchens and bathrooms, a hose in the backyard to water our gardens. It’s easy to forget how important water is. But in many regions of the world, drought makes accessing water very difficult.

“Drought” signifies a long period of time, usually several months or years, without normal rainfall or precipitation. This causes the land to become very arid and dry. Water sources dry up and can no longer be used, forcing people to go long distances to search for water. If water can be found it must be used for everything including drinking, washing, feeding animals and as a washroom. This can cause sickness and spread disease.

Drought also means that crops and animals that rely on the rain often die, resulting in a food crisis or famine. Famine was the deadliest form of disaster in the 1990s, accounting for 42 percent of all deaths caused by natural disasters (United Nations Environment Programme). When drought occurs in developing regions that do not have any resources to fall back on in times of crisis, the resulting food crisis can be devastating.

  • According to the UN, everyone needs 20-50 litres of clean freshwater every day to meet their basic needs of drinking, cooking and washing. (UN Water, statistics)
  • Between 1991 and 2000, over 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters. Ninety percent of those were water-related events. (UN Water, Water pollution, environmental degredation and disasters)
  • Approximately 70 percent of all available freshwater is used for agricultural irrigation (Unesco, World Water Assessment Programme)
  • In 2011, East Africa saw its worst drought in 60 years, which affected over 12 million people. (BBC News)
  • The longest drought in recorded history took place in Chile’s Atacama desert, and lasted 400 years.

A Closer Look

In itself, drought means a lack of rainfall. However, the ramifications of drought usually arise from disruption to food sources. Every person requires two to four litres of water each day, but it takes 2,000-5,000 litres to produce food for one person each day (UN Water, Statistics). During a drought, plants and crops die from lack of water, and grazing livestock also perish because they have nothing to eat. The few crops that do grow are sold at exorbitant prices because of their scarcity, so only the wealthiest people can afford to eat. In communities that rely on the production of local food, the result is a hunger crisis or famine. Young children are at the highest risk during a food emergency, and if they persistently do not get enough food, their growth becomes stunted.

People in drought-affected areas are forced to travel in search of food and water, often moving to other regions and even other nations, where they are housed in temporary camps. During the height of the 2011 East African drought, 1,300 people were crossing daily into Kenya, where the situation was not as dire, in search of sustenance (BBC). Governments and international organizations often provide food and water at these camps, but many people can get sick because of the close living quarters, which cause illness to spread quickly.

Drought most often occurs when rainfall or precipitation is significantly less than usual, but it can also be affected when higher than normal temperatures cause greater evaporation and cause the land to become more arid. Climate change is altering the earth’s weather systems, which is leading to extreme weather conditions including floods and droughts. As a result, dry areas of the world are experiencing more frequent and extreme droughts.

When a region has little or no resources to fall back on in times of hardship, a drought can be detrimental. This was the case in the 2011 drought in Eastern Africa, designated the worst drought in 60 years. Two seasons of minimal rainfall left the region parched and unable to sustain crops or grazing livestock. There were few food and water sources to fall back on, resulting in thirst and famine.

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Me to We Trips visited the rural village of Wu Jia Zhuang, China, where the community and North American youth volunteers had built a new school some months before. The students were waiting, dressed in their best clothes, big smiles on their faces and waving colourful flags, singing in Mandarin, “Welcome, warm welcome.” The students of Wu Jia Zhuang school put on a big ceremony for their guests.

“It’s no wonder they put so much energy and joy into greeting us,” writes Garry Norman, a Me to We Trip facilitator. “They are so proud of their school; it’s the centre of their village.”

The old school had been falling apart. Its poorly lit rooms were half the size of Western elementary school classrooms. Each room had as many as 60 kids crammed inside. Imagine trying to pay attention, study or get the teacher’s help in a school like this.

The new school gives students the space and atmosphere for a good education. Funds raised by their North American peers help to train teachers and supply classrooms. Sunnili, the first student to graduate from Wu Jia Zhuang school, is now in high school getting excellent grades in all her classes. She plans to go to university to become a scientist. As long as they have pencils in their hands and a teacher to guide them, the kids in Wu Jia Zhuang will have the chance to escape poverty and realize their dreams.

  • 150 million people drop out of primary school before they have completed five years of education – the minimum required for achieving basic literacy.
  • By 2003, only 37 out of 155 developing countries had achieved universal primary school completion.
  • 133 million young people around the world cannot read or write.
  • An estimated 57 million children are not in school.
  • Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.
  • When a woman has at least secondary education, her children are twice more likely to survive than children born to less educated mothers.
  • AIDS spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls as among educated girls who have received even some schooling.

A Closer Look

In North America, we believe that all children—boy or girl, rich or poor, white, black, brown, yellow, red or blue—have the right to education. So we set up systems to work toward this goal. For example, our taxes pay for the building of public schools as well as materials like white boards and desks. If distance presents a challenge, we roll out the big yellow buses. If children are hungry because of poverty, we have lunch programs to provide the nutrition that is essential for learning.

Despite this, we still fail to meet every child’s needs. Poverty affects attendance and contributes to drop-out rates. Statistics suggest that our literacy rates are lower than they should be. But still, almost 100 percent of all North American school-age children are in school. This is a far different picture from the developing countries, where millions of children are denied their basic right to an education.

Maybe you’ve heard people talk about the “cycle of poverty.” What this means is that if your parents are very poor, you won’t get enough healthy food, resulting in undernourishment and illness. Undernourishment and illness then keep you out of school and make it difficult to study and learn. Without education, you can’t get a good job. And so the cycle continues.

Although all the parts of this cycle are connected, education is uniquely powerful because it is long-lasting, comprehensive and empowering. Giving knowledge is very different from giving a bowl of rice or a vaccine. The rice and vaccine are important, but not sustainable. As the old saying goes, if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him how to fish, he’ll feed himself for a lifetime.

Education is about gathering knowledge and skills. It affects the amount of power that a person has to determine his or her own future. An “educated” person is often described as literate, able to think critically about the world and equipped to contribute to his or her community.

When children are in school, they learn about important health issues, information that can protect them from deadly diseases. Education is also proven to reduce the chance of death for mothers and children during and around pregnancy. Educated women are more likely to have children that survive and are healthy, because educated women have learned the importance of nutrition and proper health care. Educated mothers are also more likely to send their children to school.

In order to prevent being exploited, and to have the chance at a future that is healthy and productive, children need to understand what’s going on around them well enough to choose a safe and prosperous path. Education gives them this opportunity.

There are many reasons why school attendance isn’t higher in many countries. Often the situation is very complicated and many factors are simultaneously at work. In families living in extreme poverty, children tend to work as labourers for as many as 12 hours a day. To make things harder, many countries have tuition fees and school uniform requirements that make school prohibitively expensive.

In countries torn apart by war, children are often forced to trade their pens for guns. Around the world today, more than 300,000 (World Bank) children are fighting as child soldiers. Children need the ability to attend school where they can learn successful conflict resolution skills. If enough children learn peace-building like this, perhaps whole societies will be able to prevent warfare and violence from the ground up.

Illness and diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and tuberculosis prevent children from being physically able to attend school. If children aren’t suffering with these health issues, they may be forced to stay home in order to care for younger siblings after losing their parents to AIDS.

Girls usually have an even harder time with education than boys. About 1 in 10 school-aged girls in Africa drop out once they reach puberty because they don’t have clean or private washrooms to use at school. In many places around the world, girls are forced to leave school at an early age in order to enter into marriage. Even the daily chore of collecting safe drinking water takes away from time that girls could spend in the classroom, as they often have to walk for hours just to find clean water.

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Good health can be broadly defined as freedom from bodily or mental disease. When people are in good health, they can work to sustain themselves and their families. They can attend school to acquire knowledge and skills. Women can plan for and deliver healthy children who have bright futures. Men and women can both enjoy lives filled with hope, independence and dignity.

When health gives way to illness, people are less able to work or go to school. Adding the effects of extreme poverty like lack of food, clean water and sanitation compounds the seriousness of the situation. If adults die, they leave behind orphans whose lives are at great risk. Without adequate prenatal care, pregnant women are especially vulnerable to diseases. They may pass on the diseases to their children or die before actually giving birth. High child mortality rates show that many newborns die within days of birth.

All of this is the harsh reality for millions of people living in developing countries. HIV/AIDS is decimating entire demographics with millions of orphans left to care for younger siblings. Finding money to treat diseases, both simple and complex, is often just a dream. Although HIV/AIDS gets most of the attention, other illnesses like malaria and diarrhoea are a huge problem where there is a lack of sanitation and basic health care.

  • Some 27 percent fewer children died before their fifth birthday in 2007 than in 1990.
  • Between 1900 and 2006, 27 countries saw the number of malaria cases drop by half.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million people died from tuberculosis (TB) in 2009.
  • Every day, 8,000 people die from AIDS-related conditions. This is equal to about 3 million deaths per year.
  • 1.7 million children die every year from diarrhoea. That amounts to 18 percent of all deaths among children under five years of age worldwide, making the second most common cause of child death.
  • Additional annual investment needed to provide reproductive health case for all women is $12 billion US. $12 billion is also how much Europe and the US spend annually on perfume.

A Closer Look

Experiences like SARS and the Avian Flu have given North Americans a glimpse into the realities of widespread disease. And, while diseases like HIV/AIDS are a definite reality in North America, antiretroviral drugs and special treatments have extended life spans and allowed those who can afford them to live a more normal life.

In communities where there is little money, no hospital and poor access to a doctor, easily treatable problems become very dangerous. For instance, malaria infects almost 300 million people each year and kills more than one million annually. Almost 90 percent of those deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa. Believe it or not, simple, cheap mosquito nets can prevent transmission by up to 50 percent, and lower the deaths of children under five by 25 percent.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to poverty-related health problems. Unable to reach any hospital or clinic, many pregnant women must give birth in dirty rooms, without medicine or sanitation. Every year, more than 500,000 women die in pregnancy and childbirth: that’s almost one death every minute of every day.

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Poverty is one of those things that people talk about all the time, but how often do we stop to ask what exactly poverty means? Is it just not having enough money? And how much would be “enough”? These are important questions to ask.

The standard answer today is that poverty is a person’s inability to access the basic needs for survival. Child poverty involves a significant lack of the basic requirements for healthy physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development. It can result in a lack of opportunities, a lack of control over one’s life, social isolation and discriminatory treatment at the hands of others.

It would be wrong to say that you need money to be happy. There are countless examples around the world that prove the strength of the human spirit, that show happiness thrives in a strong community and in sharing what you have, especially if that’s very little. However, poverty is a whole different issue that doesn’t have to do with just how much money one has. It is about a person’s access to, or lack of, the fundamental things required to stay alive, to be healthy and aware: these are basic human rights that poverty stands in the way of.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Thinking of poverty as violence shows how it actively causes harm, and how the problem is larger than just the money you earn: poverty reaches into every part of life.

  • In the United States, 17 percent of children live in poverty (12 million).
  • In Canada, almost one in every six children lives below the poverty line.
  • Chronic hunger means people don’t have enough food to meet their daily needs.
  • In 2010, 925 million people in developing countries were affected by chronic hunger.
  • Someone dies of starvation every 3.6 seconds. most of these deaths are children under the age of five.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, half the children under age five are malnourished.
  • According to the Worldwatch Institute, the annual expenditure of pet food in Europe and the United States is $17 billion. With an annual investment of $19 billion, we can eliminate global hunger and malnutrition.
  • In Canada, 2010, 38 percent of those who used food banks were children or youth.

A Closer Look

Freedom from poverty gives people the freedom to live. Yet today, nearly three billion people live on less than $2 US a day. There are 1.4 billion people living in what’s called “extreme poverty,” marked by an income of less than $1.25 a day. These people can’t afford enough food, or enough nutritious food, to survive; they can’t afford proper medical care, so millions of children die every year from largely preventable diseases; they can’t afford transportation to medical facilities, so about half a million women die unnecessarily every year during childbirth; they can’t afford to go to school, so they never learn many of the things necessary for healthy and long lives. The list goes on.

When people have access to basic amenities such as food and shelter, they have greater dignity and hope. People are able to move beyond the state of simply surviving. They can work, make a contribution to the community and send their children to school with adequate nutrition for learning. Society as a whole benefits and can celebrate the fact that its citizens enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

Poverty also affects the environment and the sustainability of communities. People living in conditions of extreme poverty spend large amounts of time just trying to survive, so daily desperation leaves little opportunity for concerns of sustainability. For example, people will use what fuel they can find for cooking, which makes the practice of cutting down trees understandable. If living conditions improve, different sources of fuel may be available, and people can choose the ones with fewer health risks and negative effects to the environment.

Although some of us associate poverty primarily with people in faraway places, it is crucial to recognize that this challenge exists all around us in North America. In the United States, 17 percent of children live in poverty (that’s 12 million). In 2010, 867,948 people in Canada used a food bank in just one month (HungerCount 2010).

Fortunately, in North America we have social programs like food banks to help people in poverty. Millions of children in other parts of the world don’t have this option. Social assistance, publicly funded health and education systems, do not exist in the same way, if at all.

Because fighting poverty involves everything from employment to education to the environment, it is a central part of improving the lives of billions of people around the world. Now, with incredible technology and knowledge so widely available, we have the chance to completely end poverty. All it requires is that everyone works together. Six billion people united behind this cause: nothing can stop that.

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