Best of UNICEF Research 2021

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Best of UNICEF Research

For the second year running, the Best of UNICEF Research is being awarded in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that poor and discriminated children are being hardest hit by the pandemic. Research and data are critical to reinvent responses, show tangible impact, and prioritize those children most at risk.

The Best of UNICEF Research 2021 showcases 11 powerful studies from around the world grouped according to UNICEF's five strategic priorities, as well as those covering multiple goals.

Submitted by UNICEF offices from around the world, Best of UNICEF Research showcases quality research with a high potential for impact to benefit children. These studies focus on reducing inequalities and discrimination, addressing gaps in knowledge, and seeking new perspectives. Many of the studies are innovative in their methods and use of technologies.

Download the full report or scroll through summaries of the winning papers below.





Goal Area 1: Every child survives and thrives 

Every child has the right to grow up healthy and strong. And yet, poverty, the environment, malnutrition, inadequate care, and maternal health prevent millions of children from surviving and thriving. Two studies explore what can be done to ensure children live a healthy and fulfilled life.



How much is spent on adolescent healthcare in China, and who spends it?

Evidence increasingly shows that good health in adolescence supports better long-term health and well-being. By contrast, unhealthy behaviours initiated in adolescence, such as substance use, track into adult life and increase rates of morbidity and mortality.

Despite having the second highest number of adolescents in the world, little is known about China’s national expenditure on adolescent healthcare. This study addresses this gap using the System of Health Accounts 2011, data from China’s National Health Accounts, and surveys with over 2,000 healthcare institutions. The findings provide a strong evidence base for the country’s forthcoming adolescent healthcare strategy which will include greater and more targeted investment in preventive care.


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How can viral load suppression be improved in children with HIV in Eastern and Southern Africa?

Reducing HIV’s ability to reproduce in the body using antiretroviral therapy is crucial to improving survival rates and quality of life. However, evidence suggests that this treatment is not as effective among children. In Eastern and Southern Africa, more than 1.2 million children aged 0–14 are living with HIV.

To better understand the issue, UNICEF ESARO commissioned a multifaceted review of studies, laboratory data, and patient records, as well as conducting in-depth interviews with health workers and caregivers. The study found that one in three affected children had not achieved viral load suppression. The study adds to the evidence base for strengthening efforts to improve the management of HIV in pediatrics.


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Goal Area 2: Every child learns 

Every child has the right to an education and quality learning opportunities from early childhood to adolescence. And yet, a range of factors – including location, economic circumstances, gender, disability, teaching quality, conflicts and shocks – prevent millions of children from learning. Three studies explore how this goal can be achieved throughout Asia.



How do you measure learning outcomes in primary education and what factors influence those outcomes most?

Covering over 29,000 Grade 5 children in Southeast Asia, this is the first study to provide robust data about learning outcomes in primary education in Cambodia, the Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Viet Nam.

The study found that gender, socioeconomic status, preschool experience and early developmental skills impacted learning outcomes. There was considerable variation in learning outcomes between the countries. It also found that children were interested in learning about environmental issues and how to solve problems in their own communities. This study can be a powerful tool for improving education in Southeast Asia, while offering a relevant pre-COVID benchmark to assess learning loss due to the pandemic.


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What barriers do girls and young women in Southeast Asia face to entrepreneurship and leadership?

Despite high rates of women’s entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia, women-led enterprises lag behind their male-run counterparts in size, profitability, resilience, and growth potential. Participatory workshops with girls and young women in Indonesia, Lao PDR and Thailand were combined with a quantitative survey and interviews with subject matter experts, as well as some workshops with young men, to examine how girls’ and young women’s expectations and values are shaped in adolescence and how this affects their capacity and agency for entrepreneurship and leadership.

The study found that, due to gendered social norms, young women in Asia and the Pacific spend triple the time on unpaid care and domestic work than young men. Girls and young women have lower self-confidence than boys and young men, have a high fear of failure, and feel that their individual needs and choices are secondary to their family duties. An absence of female role models reinforces their perceptions.


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How do South Asian youth feel about entering the world of work?

South Asia is home to one of the largest youth labour forces in the world, with 150 million young people set to enter the workforce by 2030. Closing the gap in skills and employment begins with understanding young people’s journeys from adolescence to adulthood. Using a questionnaire distributed on social media and focus group discussions, this research asks over 33,000 youth from eight South Asian countries how (un)prepared they feel to enter the world of work.

What did the young people they say? They are ambitious, but lacking confidence. They are hard-working but feel under-prepared for the world of employment. They are determined to support their families but disillusioned by the nepotism and bribery that restricts their opportunities.


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Violence & Exploitation

Goal Area 3: Every child is protected from violence and exploitation

Every child has the right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse. And yet, social norms, cultural practices, intra-state conflict and displacement, and other harmful actions undermine children’s safety and well-being. One study from South Asia shows how we can better protect children from harmful practices.




Does child marriage increase in humanitarian settings – and if so, why?

With an estimated 285 million child brides in South Asia alone, more needs to be done to eradicate child marriage. Evidence shows that child marriage increases in humanitarian crises. This study examines child marriage in two humanitarian settings: refugee camps in Bangladesh housing the Rohingya population; and two districts affected by the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.

Child marriage increased in the immediate aftermath of both crises as underlying drivers of child marriage (gender inequality, cultural and social norms, poverty and lack of opportunities) were amplified. In the Rohingya community, the increase was due, in part, to the easing of the prohibition on child marriage, as well as economic distress and a lack of perceived security for girls and women in the camps. In Nepal, there was a rise in self-initiated marriage among young people.


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Safe Environment

Goal Area 4: Every child lives in a safe and clean environment

Every child has a right to live in an environment that is conducive to his or her growth and safety, including being protected from pollutants and other hazards. Yet, climate change, weak governance, unplanned urbanization, and insufficient awareness of the dangers posed by environmental risks expose millions of children to potential harm. This study examines access to health care facilities following natural disasters.



What is the effect of climate-related hazards on access to healthcare?

Current guidelines for post-disaster assessments do not reflect key impacts of climate-related hazards or the geographic distribution of needs, such as disruption to transport, damage to health facilities, and flooding. This can mean that health facilities may be unreachable.

This study examined travel times to healthcare facilities in the aftermath of two cyclones that struck Mozambique in 2019. Researchers estimated the percentage of children under 5 years who could access a health facility within a travel time threshold. The findings have been used to inform the reconstruction of Mozambique’s infrastructure and healthcare facilities and can be potentially scaled for future disaster response.


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Goal Area 5: Every child has an equitable chance in life

Every child has the right to fulfil his or her potential. And yet, extreme poverty, geography, conflict, discrimination, exclusion and other barriers hold back millions of children around the world, with lifelong consequences for themselves and their societies as inequity and deprivation perpetuate poverty across generations. Two studies look at the impact of COVID-19 on family remittances and citizen perceptions and uptake of social protection.



How do people in Ghana perceive poverty and the role of social protection?

Social protection is fundamental to ending poverty. One of the key factors for a successful social protection programme is public support for it. This study explores 640 Ghanaian citizens’ perceptions of poverty and social protection.

The findings reveal that there is misinformation on existing social protection programmes, meaning many people miss out on support to which they are entitled. The study aims to increase public understanding of social protection as a right, and to improve awareness and delivery of existing programmes.


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How has COVID-19 affected children and their families in the Republic of Moldova?

With up to 16% of the country’s GDP made up of remittances from Moldovans working overseas and many households relying on remittances as the primary income source, this study explored the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on families with children.

While incomes have dropped, household expenditure has risen due to more people being at home for longer. To cope, many households cut down on certain expenses, resulting in a drop in living standards. The results are being used to inform the government’s recovery strategy and the development of future policies addressing the economic impact of COVID-19 on households with children.


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Two crosscutting studies focusing on disability look at assessing service inclusivity in Montenegro and addressing stigma around disability in Palestine.



How effective is the support provided to children with disabilities in Montenegro?

By examining national policy and legislative frameworks, combined with data from relevant ministries, interviews and focus groups, this study helps better understand the challenges for children with disabilities and their families in accessing services.

While there were no major gaps in the strategic aspects of disability-related policies, the research found a lack of coordination across health, education and other social sectors, as well as gaps in the provision of specialized services. The study recommendations are already leading to action on the ground. As a joint effort with the Government of Montenegro, organisations working in disability, and children with disabilities and their families, the study has strong potential to advance the rights of children with disabilities.


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How do children in Palestine with developmental delays and disabilities experience stigma and discrimination?

Besides the practical difficulties of everyday life, children with developmental delays and disabilities in Palestine also deal with considerable stigma and discrimination. This research examines the impact of marginalization on children and their families.

The results showed that, although there was a strong desire to confront stigma, parents and caregivers were not confident in their ability to do so. There was a lack of awareness of legal rights for children with developmental delays and disabilities, inconsistent support, and issues accessing healthcare and education. The research will form the foundation of a communication for development strategy to empower children and their families and provide them with the skills they need to confront discrimination in their communities.


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