In this week’s Time magazine, Nilanjana Bhowmick introduces us to 17-year-old Sharda, from India. After giving birth to a premature son in February, Sharda and the baby were relegated to a makeshift room where the child received none of the special care necessary for premature infants. When the boy died two months later, Sharda knew she would be expected to conceive again as soon as possible—regardless of whether or not that was safe for her to do.
The world is not turning a blind eye to Sharda or the millions of families worldwide who have experienced the sadness of losing a child. In fact, the fourth Millennium Development Goal, which focuses on reducing child mortality, has gotten more public attention—and has seen more progress—than most of the other MDGs. The goal of reducing the under-5 mortality rate by two-thirds has not yet been achieved, but we’re getting closer: as of 2007, the rate had decreased by one-third in developing countries. But to provide all children with a chance at full health, world leaders will have to address the myriad of interrelated issues that lead to early mortality, child illness, and suffering. Beyond the devastating threats of measles, malaria, or diarrhea—millions of children around the globe are also faced with abject poverty and hunger, barred from educational opportunities, and face other challenges that threaten their health and well-being.
Danny Boyle addressed these complexities in his 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire.” The story is a fantasy in every respect, following Jamal and Latika, two young children from the slums of Mumbai, as they dodge potentially fatal pitfall after pitfall—and emerge victorious. Without parents to protect them, the children have to find shelter and nourishment where they can, and are eventually forced into a life of begging by a gang that mutilates children to increase their “earning power.” On the verge of their teen years, Jamal and Latika do escape the clutches of the gang, but Latika is almost immediately raped by an older boy, and Jamal must still struggle for basic survival. Before you get to the end of the film—which is exaggeratedly happy—it seems as if Boyle had set out to illustrate the myriad of hurdles a many children face before reaching adulthood, and how absolutely fantastical and unrealistic it is to expect real boys and girls to beat the odds in the ways Jamal and Latika eventually do.
For all the awards and acclaim “Slumdog” received, the film had plenty of critics enraged over Boyle’s portrayal of life in Mumbai, saying the violence and destitution did not reflect the current state of the country. Still, in 2009 the Daily Mail reported 44,000 children were falling into the hands of similar gangs each year, poverty remains rampant despite India’s burgeoning economy, and there is ample evidence that many young girls are raped or forced into early and forced marriage in India and around the globe. Without reliable housing and food, health services, and education, including education that fosters gender equality and self-esteem, the young people will remain vulnerable.
It’s my hope that as world leaders meet to discuss the MDGs this week, they consider the interrelated nature of the goals they have set for themselves. While it’s true that a child’s health outcomes are often improved by immunizations and bed nets, their wellbeing cannot be assured until we tackle start fighting all of the myriad, diverse, and seemingly unrelated threats they face.