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Changing Children’s Chances


For the first time, the policies of every nation on matters critical to kids’ ability to reach their potential can be easily accessed and compared. By shining a spotlight on the leaders and the laggards, Jody Heymann, who leads the ambitious project and is the new dean of the Fielding School, is moving countries to change.

Dr. Jody Heymann points out that until recently, anyone with Internet access could easily find out the price of vanilla in countries all over the world, or compare the cost of a McDonald’s Big Mac across the dozens of nations where the fast-food giant operates. On the other hand, anyone wondering where parents could stay home and care for their sick child without fear of getting fired was out of luck.

It’s not that the information wasn’t out there. “The United Nations, for example, had done a phenomenal job at collecting all of the world’s labor laws,” says Heymann, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “But for a simple question like that, you would have to read 20,000 pages of labor legislation in a half-dozen UN languages. And if you wanted to answer something as simple as ‘Where is high school free?’ you had to read 193 country reports – thousands of pages, very dry, presented differently, also in multiple languages. For all intents and purposes, this information was inaccessible.”

That changed in February when the UCLA World Policy Analysis Center, founded and led by Heymann, released never-before-available comparative data on the 193 UN countries’ laws and public policies in the areas of poverty, discrimination, education, health care, child labor, child marriage and parental care. In their book Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move from Surviving to Thriving and through an interactive website (, Heymann and co-author Kristen McNeill tell the story of what countries around the world are doing to ensure – or limit – children’s opportunities to reach their full potential.

Girls are particularly vulnerable to early marriage, which can often result in their being taken out of school. In 54 countries, they are permitted to marry between one and three years before boys.

The report includes full-color world maps and tables offering insights into global policies on a range of topics, such as how long each country protects girls from marrying compared with boys, which countries offer paid leave for new mothers and fathers, and which provide inclusive education to children with disabilities. The maps expose the countries that charge tuition for secondary education – thereby making it out of reach for poor children (38 do); and, on the positive side, the ones that prohibit hazardous work before the age of 18 (46 do).

Making all of this information publicly available and easily accessible through the Children’s Chances Initiative was a huge undertaking that involved seven years of work. Implicit in the effort is the understanding that national action, laws and public policies fundamentally affect children’s ability to thrive. “All of us shape the lives of our children by how we raise them,” Heymann says. “But there is no doubt that the context in which we live dramatically affects the opportunities for our kids. If you are a low-income family in a setting where everyone gets prenatal care because it’s universally provided, you are much better able to ensure a healthy start for your child. If primary, secondary and university education are free, the chances of your child attending all levels go up dramatically.”

While social concerns such as poverty and access to education warrant addressing on their own, Heymann points out that they are also inextricably linked to health. “When you look at why people get sick and how they fare once they become sick, this is determined by their environment and their social conditions much more than by what we do in the health care sector, as important as that is,” she says.

“All of us shape the lives of our children by how we raise them. But there is no doubt that the context in which we live dramatically affects the opportunities for our kids.

At a time when representatives from governments around the world are setting global goals that all nations should strive toward – the so-called “post-2015” agenda – Children’s Chances urges a transformational shift from focusing solely on survival to targeting children’s full and healthy development.

Beyond the specific questions that can be answered about which countries advance what policies of consequence to children, Children’s Chances shines a spotlight on the leaders and the laggards, and enables comparisons among nations in the same region or at similar income levels. With a few clicks on the Children’s Chances Initiative website, citizens of any country can learn about their rights on a host of issues, and ultimately can hold their governments accountable for policy shortcomings. Heymann notes that within the first few weeks after the information was made available, people from more than 150 countries had visited the site.

While universal free primary education has become a reality for most of the world’s children (in 166 of the 174 countries from which data were available), 61 countries still charge tuition for all or some secondary education.

Previously, no one had compiled this type of information in such an easily accessible way for several reasons, Heymann says. First, it’s a monumental task. Among other things, the researchers had to develop a framework enabling fair comparisons across different political and social systems and cultures. An international, multilingual team had to sift through thousands of pages of documents to ensure rigorous analyses. “Like all large endeavors, something like this is best embarked on when you have no idea how much work it will take,” Heymann says, smiling.

There is also a much greater demand for the information – and, in the age of technology, much more utility to such a project. “Twenty years ago, we couldn’t get the information out to the whole world in a split second,” Heymann says. “That was simply not possible when countries from around the world first came to the UN in 1989 and agreed, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to make the lives of children around the world better.”

“What we’ve found is that when countries see where they stand, they care,” Heymann says. “The ones that think of themselves as leaders have contacted us to ask how they measure up, and some of those that have fallen behind have taken this as a time to move their policies.”

And finally, Heymann notes that the gaps in information were convenient for the laggard countries, and as a result, institutions not as insulated from politics as the university faced pressure to keep citizens and advocates for children in the dark. “This information, when simply presented, is very powerful,” Heymann says.

Powerful enough to propel change, she believes – and Heymann already has evidence to support that contention. One of her center’s first publications pointed to the nearly universal availability of paid maternity leave throughout the world. In the African country of Lesotho, policy makers took note and passed paid leave. The next time the list of countries that don’t mandate paid maternity leave was published – including reports in the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets pointing out that the United States is one of the few not to – Heymann received an email from a representative of the Lesotho government, complaining of still being listed. “What we’ve found is that when countries see where they stand, they care,” Heymann says. “The ones that think of themselves as leaders have contacted us to ask how they measure up, and some of those that have fallen behind have taken this as a time to move their policies.”

Jody Heymann, fellow visit to Malawi in 2008.Part of the mission of the Children’s Chances Initiative is to focus global attention on which countries have or haven’t adopted policies for which the evidence of the impact on children’s welfare is overwhelming. Heymann points to education as an example. “We know that if you have access to secondary schooling you will be healthier as a youth and as an adult,” she says. “As an educated parent, your children will be in better health. Education results in higher income, which is also related to health. And the evidence is strong that tuition makes it less likely that poor children and, in some societies, girls will attend. So with that policy, the most important thing we are doing is mapping where it is in place and where it isn’t.”

But the initiative also enables Heymann and her colleagues to measure the impact of policies about which less is known. “It was accepted that paid maternity leave could make a difference, but it wasn’t known how much time you needed to provide, or what the specific impact was on infant or child mortality,” Heymann says. “With this information, we did a study showing that an additional 10 weeks of paid maternity leave lowers infant mortality by 10 percent – a huge impact.” Another study showed that simply raising the minimum age at which children can work to 15 leads to a marked increase in the percentage completing secondary school.

Six countries have no legislated minimum age for employment. Children may be put to work as young as 12 or 13 years old in five countries, at age 14 in 29 countries, and at age 15 in 63 countries. 

Heymann points out that it’s possible to make a dramatic impact through policies that cost little. An example is the reduction or elimination of child marriage. “Too many countries around the world allow girls to be married off three years younger than boys,” she notes. “Eliminating that disparity brings tremendous health, educational and other lifelong benefits not only to the girls, but to their children when they are adults.” Other areas, such as making education free and providing universal prenatal care, require governments to spend money. But the Children’s Chances Initiative data can identify which countries are under-investing compared to their level of wealth. Moreover, Heymann notes, the many resource-constrained countries that are ahead of the curve provide hope that significant change is feasible.

Indeed, while the scale of the problems facing the world’s children can seem overwhelming, Children’s Chances points to recent history as evidence that massive progress is possible on problems that once seemed unsolvable. Within the last 25 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty globally has been cut in half, the number of children under age 5 who die each day has dropped by more than 12,000, and the percentage of girls attending school has climbed from just three in four to more than 90 percent.

“Progress over the past few decades demonstrates that where there is a will, there is a way to make dramatic changes in children’s lives, from survival to basic education,” Heymann says. “However, our findings show how far nations still have to go to realize a world where all children have a chance to thrive, not just survive.”   


Children’s Chances calls on world leaders to consider the following recommendations, among others, in shaping the post-2015 agenda:


  • Make education free, especially secondary education. Quality secondary education and the employment opportunities it provides are key to lifting young people out of poverty.
  • Increase educational-attainment requirements for teachers, accompanied by improved salaries and training to ensure that enough qualified teachers are available.

Labor and Workplace

  • Protect children and youth from working long hours, which interferes with success at school. 
  • Ensure that minimum wages are high enough to lift families out of poverty without relying on child labor to supplement family income; provide financial assistance to low-income families supporting children. 
  • Ensure that workplace policies are in place that enable working parents to care for their children — especially critical in the context of changing global labor-market conditions.


  • Establish a minimum age for marriage that is the same for both sexes and that is high enough to allow children and youth to complete secondary education.

Parental Care

  • Countries that have not yet done so should guarantee paid maternity, paternity and parental leave, as well as leave to care for children's health needs.

Fighting Discrimination

  • Ensure that legal and constitutional provisions create a strong foundation against discrimination for all children and adults across the lines of gender, ethnicity, employment, religion and sexuality.

Children with Disabilities

  • Address the specific needs of children with disabilities, including their access to inclusive education and the provision of supplementary income to meet their special needs.