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FILE - A woman feeds her child at a clinic in a rural village in Afar, Ethiopia, Jan. 26, 2016.

VOA's Carol Van Dam Falk contributed to this report.

At a time when bad news seems inescapable, the aid group Save the Children has some good news: Across the globe, children are healthier and safer than ever before.

According to a new report by the U.S.-based charity, the overall situation for children has improved in 173 of 176 countries since 2000. Among the highlights are 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year, 115 million more children in school and 11 million fewer married girls.

"We found that there stands some remarkable progress in helping children to grow up healthy, educated and safe," said Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children. "And I think the headline from the report is that an estimated 280 million children worldwide are significantly better off today than they were in the year 2000."

In order to quantify the protection of children, the group used an "End of Childhood Index" to rank countries on a scale of 1 to 1,000. The scores take into account "childhood enders" including death, severe malnutrition, child marriage, labor and early motherhood.

In Africa, the group found reason for optimism. More than 70 percent of African countries saw their scores increase by 100 points or more. The countries making the greatest gains were Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Niger.

"In most of these cases, you can get strong political commitment from the very top," said Nikki Gillette, the report's researcher.

Each of the African countries highlighted had specific drivers improving the quality of life for children. In Sierra Leone, the end of a protracted civil war led to a 99 percent reduction in displaced people. In Rwanda, a return to peace and several government initiatives led to a 79 percent drop in child mortality and a 60 percent reduction in child marriage and "out of school" rates.

FILE - Students walk within the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, Feb. 24, 2017.
FILE - Students walk within the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, Feb. 24, 2017.

In Ethiopia, a commitment to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals has led to improved health of mothers and children. Miles said 20 years ago in Ethiopia, Save the Children was primarily focused on saving lives of young children. Now, those problems are not as severe and the group can focus on other indicators.

"The [Ethiopian] government has taken up a lot of that community health work and the child mortality rate has dropped by 54 percent," Miles said. "So the work that Save the Children is doing there now is more focused on making sure that kids get basic literacy and have all the skills they need in school and also training youth."

Some scores drop

But the news wasn't good everywhere. The three countries that saw a drop in their scores between 2000 and 2019 were Syria, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago. Syria has been in civil war for nine years, Venezuela has undergone a political crisis leading to widespread food shortages and, in Trinidad, increased malnutrition led to higher levels of stunting among children.

FILE - Iraqi Yazidi children rescued from the Islamic State (IS) group wait to board buses bound for Sinjar in Iraq's Yazidi heartland, April 13, 2019.
FILE - Iraqi Yazidi children rescued from the Islamic State (IS) group wait to board buses bound for Sinjar in Iraq's Yazidi heartland, April 13, 2019.

Tthe report noted a steep rise in the number of children living in conflict zones. Since 2000, there has been an 80 percent rise in the number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, totaling about 30.5 million more people.

"That's where we see really the indicators not going in the right direction," Miles said.

In fact, said Miles, the five countries recording the worst mortality rate for children under the age of five — the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Sierra Leone and Somalia — are all either at war or have recently come out of war.

"We released a report earlier this year that estimated that 120 million children were living in areas affected by conflict at the end of 2017," Miles said. "And the impact on kids is more than just the impact from bombs and bullets."

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