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Norway's forgotten children

Growing up in one of the world’s richest countries is easy, right?  Wrong!  Randi Talseth, head of Voksne for Barn (Adults for Children), is concerned for Norway’s forgotten children.

Norway is one of the world’s richest countries. Only Switzerland is above us for cost of living. We regularly top lists for the highest standard of living and best quality of life. We are very fortunate. Yet out of our 1.2 million children, 75,000 are living under the poverty line (as defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The number has actually increased during the last few years, and if the government goes ahead with planned cuts to child benefits the total number of children in poverty could jump by almost 50% to 110,000.

It is completely unacceptable that in a rich country like Norway we still have children who are socially excluded because of the economy. It’s a disgrace.

In many ways, there is more stigma to being poor in a country where the majority are well off. Norway is a very costly society, and children from poorer homes tell us that they feel excluded. This is particularly true for children from immigrant families. Poverty means that they cannot participate fully in society because they lack money to pay for things – sports equipment, having a birthday party, buying toys or simply inviting their friends home. They feel socially excluded and ashamed.

Such feelings can be the starting point for leaving school early and a host of problems in adolescence and adult life. Again, this is particularly true for boys from immigrant families (although girls from these families tend to remain at school, recognizing that they have an educational opportunity in Norway which might be denied them in another country). Two thirds of Norwegian children who are in child protection and exposed to violence are from migrant families.

But poverty is not simply a matter of money and migration. Children also need to grow up in homes which are rich in love and understanding. Many Norwegian children (at least 130,000) live with parents who have severe substance abuse problems and/or mental illness. Even if these parents receive financial benefits for their children, many of them are not able to give priority to the children’s needs.

This highlights an issue which may also be true in other countries. The government wants parents to work and many of our benefits are linked to an adult’s relation to work. That may be understandable, but children have their own needs which should be assessed on their own merit. Many child benefit payments given to parents don’t benefit a child.

Voksne for Barn is an NGO which promotes the mental health of children and adolescents, and we work closely with many who feel excluded from Norway’s prosperity. We run various school programmes, including Zippy’s Friends, and organize networks to bring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds together, to help them understand that their situation is not their fault. They are often surprised to see that there are so many others living in the same conditions.

Later this month we will hold a conference about helping children and young people who are growing up in highly stressed households. The causes of stress are many and varied – parental mental illness and alcohol or drug abuse are obvious, but we also have to deal with families where a parent is addicted to online gaming or where the disability of one child disadvantages his or her siblings. A particularly sad challenge is to help children whose brother or sister is dying, when nobody has the time to care for them because everyone is focused on the child who is dying.

Of course, for many children and young people, growing up in Norway is a great experience. By international standards, they enjoy high quality education and health care and have access to a largely unspoiled natural environment.

But wealth should not blind us to the desperate struggles which some Norwegian children face. Rather, it makes us even more determined to help.
Randi Talseth
4 November 2014