By-line: Claire Leigh, Director of Global Policy, Advocacy & Research, Save the Children

People the world over are hoping that the bells ringing in 2022 will herald the start of a better era after two years of a global pandemic that has decimated economies, tested health systems to their limits and is increasingly shaping politics. However, multiple interlocking crises look set to characterise the new year.

For the world’s children, Save the Children expects the impact of these will be felt most acutely in the following areas. These seven ‘biggest challenges’ for children will need to be addressed with vigour and creativity if 2022 is not to be another year of backsliding on child rights globally. 

Challenge 1: Surviving the return of mass hunger on a scale not seen for decades

Over 2021 a perfect storm of COVID, conflict and climate change have pushed millions more children into malnutrition, and in 2022 an estimated two million children under the age of five will die of hunger related causes. Leaders gathered to discuss the growing emergency in Japan in early December, but will they deliver on their promises? 

Challenge 2: Getting back to school after two years of disrupted education

Children in Uganda, many of whom haven’t returned to school since March 2020, hope to be able to do so in the new year. Worldwide, an estimated 117 million kids are still out of school due to COVID-19. This is on top of 260 million children who were out of school even before the pandemic. Save the Children has been running ‘Catch up Clubs’ to ensure pupils don’t fall too far behind while school gates remain closed. But the longer children are out of school, the less likely it is that they will re-enrol, with girls at particular risk of dropping out, often in order to marry. The impact of lost education looks likely to be dramatic; a recent study suggests children unable to read basic text by age 10 may have already leapt from 53% before COVID to 70% today. 

Challenge 3: Propelling leaders from “blah blah blah” to action on climate change

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November represented something of a high point for youth activism, with growing assertiveness and impatience of the grassroots youth movement for which Greta Thunberg is the flagbearer. The pledges made by world leaders in Glasgow remain unequal to the task before us, and children stand to suffer most from adult inaction in the face of unfolding disaster. All eyes will be focused on COP27 to see whether leaders can turn the “blah blah blah” of Glasgow into concrete action to secure children’s futures. 

Challenge 4: Staggering numbers living in conflict zones

Nearly 200 million children are living in the world’s most lethal war zones, the highest number in over a decade – and a 20% rise from 162 million a year ago. Many of these children are already on the frontline of climate change and battling life-threatening hunger crises. Human and child rights organisations are working to try to protect children from the worst effects of war, for example through getting 112 countries to sign up to the Safe Schools Declaration, which makes schools off-limits in warzones. 

Challenge 5: Losing basic rights in the name of counter-terrorism

The rise of non-state armed groups and their recruitment and use of children has led to often draconian policies towards the children affiliated with them. From children trapped in camps in North East Syria because of their perceived affiliation with ISIS to children associated with armed groups in DRC, they are often detained indefinitely, stripped of their citizenship or suffer terrible discrimination. In 2022, the work continues to demobilise, release, repatriate and reintegrate these children in order to restore what remains of their childhood to them. 

Challenge 6: Navigating displacement and finding places of sanctuary

More children have been forcibly displaced today than at any time since World War Two. Between 2005 and 2020, the number of child refugees under UNHCR mandate more than doubled from four million to around 10 million. Images of children crossing borders or dying in the process have regularly moved publics and occasionally shifted policies. With the flow of desperate families seeking sanctuary showing no sign of abating, the question in 2022 is whether children can expect to be met with rods or ropes as they journey towards safety. 

Challenge 7: Averting a rise in child mortality due to COVID-19

There have been dramatic reductions in child mortality rates over the last 30 years, falling by almost 60% cent since 1990. However, the unprecedented demands made on health services around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused diseases which were previously in decline to resurge. Deaths from malaria, previously on a long-term downward trajectory, have increased in 32 countries since the start of the pandemic. There is a very real chance that child mortality will increase in 2022 for the first time in decades, representing a disastrous reversal for child health globally. That said, recent breakthroughs such as the world’s first effective Malaria vaccine offer hope that advances in vaccines stimulated by the pandemic might benefit children in the long-term.