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Leaving no child behind: UNECE Guidance helps countries close data gaps on vulnerable children

Leaving no child behind: UNECE Guidance helps countries close data gaps on vulnerable children

Children sitting

New Guidance from UNECE, Statistics on Children: Spotlight on children exposed to violence, in alternative care, and with disabilities, published today, will support countries in producing statistics on children in the most vulnerable situations.  

There is an evident global consensus around the need to support children’s rights and well-being. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most rapidly and widely ratified treaty in history. Children are a high priority in the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to leave no one behind. The right policies at the right time are critical to ensure all children have the best possible start to life and are prepared for future success, bringing later-life benefits to individuals, families, communities, and societies.  

Such policies require robust and reliable information on many aspects of children’s lives. These high-level commitments to children have helped to generate statistics on children’s well-being. But they have also revealed substantial data gaps.  

Collecting data on children presents unique challenges. Asking children to answer survey questions can simply be difficult. And there are legal and ethical constraints created by the need to safeguard children. Many countries therefore rely on administrative data—data collected for reasons other than statistics, such as information from education and health systems—to provide information on children. But such sources are not always ideally suited for statistical purposes.  

Sadly, it is often some of the most vulnerable groups of children who are underrepresented in these data sources—making them all but invisible to policymakers. 

Data gaps for the most vulnerable 

The Sustainable Development Goals include specific targets calling for an end to violence against children by 2030, but most countries lack the data required to assess progress and design policies to prevent and respond to violence against children. Sensitive in nature, surveys on violence against children are rare in the UNECE region. Administrative data provide information only for those children experiencing violence who come into contact with services.  

Despite their high risk for poor outcomes as children and in adulthood, children in alternative care are often overlooked in international policy initiatives. The absence of international reporting obligations contributes to data gaps. Alternative care systems vary across countries, and there are no recognized international standard definitions or classifications to produce statistics on children in alternative care. Household surveys—an important data source for population statistics in the region—cover only those individuals living in private households, so children living in institutions are left out of the data.  

The development of standardized data collection tools has improved statistics on adults with disabilities, but data on children with disabilities are still insufficient. Data collection tools designed for adults are not always appropriate for children, and children with disabilities are often missed in data-gathering exercises. Administrative data may help to shed light on the number of children with disabilities, but they tell us little about their outcomes, putting them at even greater risk for social exclusion.   

Towards a standardized approach  

The Guidance reviews practices across 43 countries participating in the Conference of European Statisticians. It looks at definitions, data sources, and the types of statistics produced on children in general, as well as those specifically dealing with children experiencing violence, children in alternative care, and children with disabilities.  

The assessment highlights the diversity of practices within and across countries in region. In Finland, for example, information on many aspects of well-being is regularly collected directly from primary- and secondary-school students in surveys administered in schools. In Italy, data from domestic violence call centres and shelters are used in statistics on children’s exposure to violence. Canada and Mexico rely exclusively on data from surveys for statistics on children with disabilities; in Albania and Georgia, only administrative data are used.  

There are commonalities too. In most countries, the collection of data and production of statistics on all groups of children is decentralized. The national statistical office (NSO) of the country may collect some information on children, but very often data are also collected by other agencies and ministries such as those concerned with health, education, and social protection. In many cases, these offices use unique methods, definitions, classifications, and data management systems, making data sharing and the consistent monitoring of child well-being difficult even within a country.  

Definitions and classifications pose a challenge at the international level as well: even the most fundamental concepts such as “child” and “youth” are not used in the same way across countries. 

Other differences stem from variation in policies and programmes. The services available for children with disabilities or types of alternative care facilities, for instance, vary significantly across countries.  

Still, in many cases standardization of statistics is feasible. Statistical standards improve international comparability, but they also act as goalposts for countries, prompting new or improved data collection and ensuring high-quality statistics for national purposes.  

The new Guidance identifies areas where coordination can improve both the availability and quality of statistics on children, and makes sixteen recommendations towards this end.  

The recommendations reflect the unique challenges for each area covered in the Guidance. For example:   

  • Start with the SDGs. Targets on violence against children provide an existing framework for robust and internationally comparable statistics, but halfway to the 2030 finish line few countries collect the data required to report on the indicators. The Guidance recommends that countries prioritize data for these indicators as an important step towards improved statistics on violence against children. 

  • Assess inclusion. National statistics often exclude children in alternative care arrangements, particularly those in residential and institutional facilities. As a first step towards more inclusive statistics, countries should assess how well existing data sources cover these populations, and make a plan to tackle shortfalls.  

  • Consider outcomes. To allocate resources and services, it’s crucial that countries know the number of children with disabilities. But to ensure children with disabilities enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other children, countries need to go beyond this and produce statistics on their outcomes in areas such as education, nutrition, and participation in society. 

A central recommendation is that countries develop national plans for data and statistics on children and youth, coordinating efforts between national statistical offices and line ministries. Clear mandates and well-defined roles make it easier to distribute resources and develop integrated systems to address data gaps.  

The global effort to produce international standards and comparable statistics on children and youth is in its infancy. Much remains to be done, so the new Guidance identifies priorities for the future, providing a roadmap for data producers and their role in leaving no child behind. 

This week the Bureau of the Conference of European Statisticians, UNECE’s highest statistical decision-making body, decided to hold an expert meeting in 2024 to support countries in putting the Guidance into action. The findings and recommendations of the Guidance will also be presented at next month’s meeting of the Transformative Monitoring for Enhanced Equity (TransMonEE) network of National Statistical Offices in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  


The Guidance was prepared by an expert task force chaired by Canada, with Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the European Commission, OECD, and UNICEF.  

It was endorsed by the Conference of European Statisticians at its 70th session earlier this year.  

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 12 34

Email: [email protected]

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