Poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS are the biggest threats to children’s lives in developing countries, says a new Unicef report.

“Poverty does not come from nowhere: war does not emerge from nothing; AIDS does not spread by choice of its own,” United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) director Carol Bellamy said at the launch of the 10th ‘State of the World’s Children’ report in London. “These are our choices.”

Half of all children in the world suffer from extreme deprivation, Bellamy said. “When that many children are robbed of childhood, our shared future is compromised.”

Unicef says in the report ‘Children Under Threat’ that 956 billion dollars were spent last year on military and war supplies. An additional 40-70 billion dollars a year could finance the Millennium Development Goals, she said.

“Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood,” Bellamy said.

The annual Unicef report into the living conditions of 2.2 billion children was produced by a research team from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Bristol working together with Unicef.

The report sets out seven areas of essential needs for children: food, safe water, healthcare, education, sanitation, shelter, and information.

“Over one billion children were found to suffer from at least one form of severe deprivation of human needs and 635 million to suffer from two or more deprivations,” said Peter Townsend from the LSE at the launch.

The team found that one in six children is hungry and one in five does not have access to safe water. Healthcare is delivered only to one in seven children. Governments in industrialised countries spend an average of 15 percent of their budget on health. In developing countries the figure drops to one percent.

Conflicts are one of the major causes of deprivation, the report says. Half of 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990 were children.

Not only do conflicts displace communities from their home, with an aftermath of hunger, diseases and psychological distress affecting especially children, but in many cases youths and children are forced to become combatants, the report says.

“In today’s wars where civilians have become the prime targets, we have to accept responsibility for the fact that children are suffering when we go to battle,” Bellamy said.

HIV/AIDS is increasingly threatening young people: it has become the largest killer of people aged 15-49 in the developing world, while there are now 15 million AIDS orphans worldwide, the report says.

But poverty is not experienced only in developing countries. In many developed countries the number of poor children increased notably in the last decade, the report says.

“Children experience poverty differently than adults, and whether or not their families are poor, these children can and should be provided with basic services,” Townsend said.

Unicef, which has an annual budget of 1.6 billion dollars, is working to improve the living conditions of children, providing early childhood and maternal care, immunisation programmes, education to girls and extra care in case of HIV/AIDS.

“The elimination of poverty can be financed,” Townsend said. “Cash transfers offer a model of the strategy by which these rights can be delivered.”

In Mexico, the programme ‘Oportunidades’ (Opportunities) provides cash directly to mothers to pay for food, children’s school needs and basic healthcare. Similar programmes have been developed successfully in Brazil and South Africa.

“We are working everyday to try to make a difference in these areas,” Bellamy told IPS. “We commit ourselves, not just talk, but we need to engage more partners – governments, NGOs, funding partners and kids themselves.”

One Unicef campaign in Nigeria seeks to get young people involved in policy-making as a strategy to inform children and young people of their rights, and involve them in change. With about 75 percent of the population of Nigeria under 35 years of age, a Children and Young People’s Parliament is representative enough to interact with the National Parliament to propose laws.

“Thanks to support from Unicef, we proposed the compulsory immunisation of every child under five years old and the compulsory use of insecticides in schools against malaria,”18-year-old Dayo Israel-Abdulai from the youth parliament told IPS. “Both proposals have become laws.”