Vulnerability of Children Post Coronavirus Pandemic
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Vulnerability of Children Post Coronavirus Pandemic

By Dr.  Balwant Singh Mehta

Vulnerability of Children Post Coronavirus Pandemic

There would be a huge impact of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis on poor families and their children. The economic, health and social crisis emanating from the present situation can push millions of vulnerable children out of school and into the clutches of child traffickers. As the financial resources and meager savings of low-income households begin to exhaust themselves, the exigencies of time require them to have multiple streams of income, no matter how low they are. This results in reliance on their children, who are viewed as an extra pair of hands, to assist in the pursuit of feeding the family. As a result, children from affected families are compelled to participate in economic activities to support the household income, and some drop out of school due to the parents’ inability to afford fees.

It is well-documented that once they stop going to school and start working, it becomes extremely difficult to get them back into classrooms. But for several of these families, their child’s labor won’t just be additional support; rather it will be the means for their survival. In many cases children have lost their parents and guardians, some have died because of the disease and others have lost their livelihood because of the shuttering of economic activities. Such dire conditions will push millions of children to seek work in the informal sector — at factory units, construction sites, agricultural fields, and as domestic servants.

Estimates of child labor

At present, there are 152 million working children between five and 17 years in the world, according to the data provided by the ILO, of which 23.8 million children are in India. Out of these, the health and safety of around 73 million children are at risk due to their employment being characterized by hazardous conditions. Most of the official estimates on child labor in India are based on the labor force surveys of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and the Census. According to the Census data, child laborers between the ages of five and 14 had declined from 12.7 million in 2001 to 10.1 million in 2011. Furthermore, the total number of adolescent laborers in the country was almost twice at 22.87 million, bringing the total (five-18 years) to around 33 million. The National Sample Survey estimates also show that child labor has declined significantly from 10.1 million in 1999 to 1.4 million in 2017.

Impact on children

The education of children engaged as laborers will effectively come to an end due to their parents’ inability to afford their school fees as a result of unemployment and a shortage of monetary resources. Faced with the stark reality of poverty and desperation, the poor often have to let go of the promise that education carries with it, that of social mobility. The lack of formal education robs them of possible opportunities and reinforces inter-generational poverty. It will simultaneously have a calamitous effect on the health and mental well-being of children as they are pushed into a world of hardships.

Moreover, there is also an increase in instances of child marriage among poor households as they are unable to afford the maintenance of all the family members. The girl child is the first to bear the brunt of these reduced circumstances. While employed as child laborers, girls are at a greater risk of sexual assault, human trafficking, and prostitution. For instance, the experience shows that school closures during the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 contributed to a spike in child labor.

Additionally, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2009 global economic crisis have also shown that more children are likely to be forced into child labor and trafficking, neglect, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancies, particularly in those countries that have little or no social protection, like India.

Another study from Nepal shows that paternal disability and death were among the strongest factors behind a child’s engagement in the worst forms of labor. The study also found that when household incomes or earning opportunities unexpectedly drop, child labor tends to increase.

According to a study by the World Bank, girl students in Sierra Leone were nearly 16 percentage points behind in school attendance after losing an entire year due to the Ebola outbreak in 2015. The same report mentioned that secondary school enrolment fell by around seven percent in the Philippines amid the Asian financial crisis of 1998-99.

At the peak of school closures in April, over 91 percent of all learners had been asked to stay away from classrooms globally, according to the UNESCO. Their estimates show that around 320 million learners have been affected in India. A major chunk of these students was enrolled in primary and secondary schools (86 percent) and do not have access to digital education.

Thus, for many of them, the COVID-19 crisis will mean limited or no classroom-based learning or falling further behind their peers. There is a high probability that many of these schoolchildren will get recruited as workers.

Government efforts

Over the last two decades, India has put in place a range of laws and programs to address the problem of child labor. The Central Government enacted the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, to prohibit children from being employed in specified hazardous occupations and at the same time regulated their working conditions in other non-hazardous occupations and processes.

The 86th Amendment to the Constitution made in 2002 was a watershed moment in the country’s efforts against child labor. It made the right to education a fundamental right and made it the State’s responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to children between six and 14 years.

In fact, the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, has made it mandatory for the State to ensure that all children aged between six and14 years are in school and receive free education.

Plus, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, completely prohibits the engagement of children below 14 years in all occupations and processes. It additionally prohibits adolescents (14-18 years) from working in hazardous occupations and processes.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the 2030 Agenda

Goal 8 of the agenda urges UN member states, employers, and workers’ organizations, as well as civil society organizations, to eliminate child labor by 2025 and forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030. The Government of India has adopted these SDGs as a framework for its future developmental plans.

But despite a plethora of efforts by the Government and civil society organizations, a large number of children continue to be engaged in both non-hazardous and hazardous occupations due to implementation loopholes and economic compulsions.

The way forward

To address the challenges, policymakers and stakeholders should explore avenues to collaborate with civil society organizations such as NGOs and local voluntary organizations/individual volunteers, who could help State Governments in reaching schools that aren’t equipped with technology-based platforms like their private counterparts. This could potentially help in keeping children engaged through distance learning.

Furthermore, the strengthening of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme and providing food to children at their homes until the lockdown last could ensure that they don’t drop out of school. State Governments must ensure that schools waive off their fee for the next few months. Added to this, the Government needs to ensure income support and food security for the poor and vulnerable households, so, as to minimize the helplessness of the families.

Lastly, steps should be taken to maintain a database of children at the local level so that their status can be reviewed periodically and immediate action from Government and communities can be taken.
Responding to this impending crisis is the need of the hour or else we stand to lose a generation of children. This would push us further away from achieving the goal of eliminating child labor by 2025. Governments and policymakers need to be cognisant of the voices of children, especially in matters affecting their daily lives and their future.

It is crucial, that serious action is directed towards saving the future of children whose vulnerability to exploitation and abuse has been escalated by the pandemic. All children possess the right to have a childhood. Putting this developmental issue on the backburner would have long-lasting consequences that could adversely affect the country’s future generations.

About the Author:

Balwant Singh Mehta is Research Director at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and Senior Fellow at Institute for Human Development, Delhi, India.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.