Millions of children left at risk

Over 340 million children under the age of six worldwide are left home alone while adult family members go to work. Almost one billion children under 15 live in the same situation.

These statistics were compiled in a survey of 55,000 familes by US researcher and paediatrician, Jody Heymann. Her interviews with 1,000 people across five continents uncover a wealth of scientifically researched detail on the plight of adults and children as they struggle with rapid globalisation. Women's participation in the labour force has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, with damaging results for children in societies where the supportive extended family is a thing of the past.

The survey found that 66 per cent of children left home alone had accidents or emergencies while their guardians were working. Thirty-five per cent of children in the care of an unpaid older child suffered developmental or behavioural problems.

When Heymann met Ramon, 10, from Honduras, he was minding his five siblings in a dark shack. "One 18-month-old girl sat like a doll. She was malnourished. There was no eye movement. She does not know how to walk. No one showed her. Two years after the floods these children are without adult company or help for most of the day."

The research also reveals that some of the most advanced countries, in particular the US, have poorer records in child welfare than their impoverished counterparts. In Baltimore, the survey showed that 61 per cent of working parents left a sick child at home alone or in another person's care. In Vietnam, where there is a modicum of social security and childcare provision, the figure was 27 per cent. In Moscow it was 18 per cent.

Frank Connolly