The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of the world’s poorest children to drop out of education and go to work to support their families as schools have closed and parents’ incomes have fallen or gone.
The children do work that is tedious, dirty and often dangerous: hauling bricks or gravel, looking for recyclable materials, begging for weeds on plantations or chopping weeds. Much of their employment is illegal.
It is a catastrophic change for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, wiping out years of education and anti-child labor gains and undermining their prospects of ascending out of poverty. Countless promising students have dropped out of training and it remains unclear when schools will reopen. But even if they do, many of the children are unlikely to return to the classroom.
Here are some key findings from a New York Times report on the conditions for these poor children.
The work is often dangerous and illegal.
Former students have been forced to do heavy manual labor on construction sites or demolition sites, search trash, do sex work, mine sand, or work in factories that make cigarettes or fireworks.
The jobs involve the risk of injury or worse, and the dangers are particularly acute for children – especially if they lack protective equipment or even shoes. In the Indian city of Tumakuru, an 11-year-old boy, Rahul, went barefoot with his father one morning to look for recyclable materials in a rubbish dump.
India has the world’s largest school-age population and the fastest growing number of coronavirus cases. The country’s laws prohibit anyone under the age of 14 from working in most circumstances, but its poverty means there was a large market for illegal child labor even before the pandemic.
As the problem grows and the government is disrupted by the virus, enforcement is even less able to keep up.
The rise in child labor also exacerbates other threats to children arising from the global recession. Hunger threatens far more people in many parts of the world than it did a year ago. Forced marriages, teenage pregnancies, and child trafficking have also increased.
Millions of children are unlikely to return to school.
The longer children are absent from school and the more desperate their family circumstances are, the less likely they are to return. The United Nations estimates that 24 million children have finally dropped out due to the pandemic.
With school closings affecting well over a billion children around the world, many of them can continue to study online or at home. But hundreds of millions come from the poorest families with no access to computers, the internet or tutors.
It becomes more difficult to return to school as the children get older and their families become dependent on their income – and no one knows whether this dependency will last for months or years.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to do the same if the school reopens due to family debts,” said Mumtaz, a 12-year-old boy in the Indian state of Bihar who now works with a lot of gravel.
Families are desperate and wages are falling.
Reluctant parents say the only alternative to getting their children to work is for families to starve.
With hundreds of millions of people unemployed around the world, the law of supply and demand does cruel math. Struggling companies are taking advantage of the glut of work and cutting wages for those who still have work.
When families get poorer, children enter the world of work, which increases the labor surplus. And unscrupulous employers break labor laws and hire children, who often work for pennies.
A contractor in West Bengal, India said parents asked him to find work for children aged 8 who looked like they were ready to be thrown into the fire.
Decades of progress are threatened.
Around the world, poverty had decreased for decades, especially in Asia, allowing more and more children to stay in school. The pandemic has reversed these trends.
Many of the students who were forced out of the classroom to work were doing well academically and dreaming of a better future. Those dreams are now in jeopardy.
Rahul, the 11-year-old boy in Tumakuru wants to become a doctor and his teacher says he is smart enough to accomplish this goal. But the longer he doesn’t go to school, the more remote it gets.
In India and many other countries, the focus has been on reopening businesses to get the economy going again. However, child advocates say it is myopic to open bars, restaurants and transit systems while schools remain closed.