More children forced to work even in difficult circumstances as the pandemic hits families
By Dorcus Nekesa,
One look at 15-year old Miriam will leave you wondering whether she is a girl or a young man.
You will be forgiven to argue that her shoulders and chest are too broad for a girl her age. The muscles of her arms also give the conflicting view and so does her general physique. She gives a labored smile as if she is trying to convince me that all is well with her. Although she is clearly shy, it is also evident that she is very fearful of something or afraid of some unseen person.
We found Miriam at some quarry, a few kilometres outside Nairobi. She is busy scooping stones into a bucket after which she makes countless trips to a nearby lorry throws them into the trailer and returns to collects more. When she is not collecting the stones, she is digging them out. This has been her work since March when Covd-19 instigated measures including closure of schools, were implemented. She does this work day in day out. The only break she gets is when the curfew forces her back home, where she will also do house chores before she retires to bed for a few hours, only to head to the quarry by 5.30am.
Miriam is an orphan. After her mother died some five years ago due to an illness, she was left under the care of an elderly grandmother, who lives in abject poverty, in Siaya county. An aunt who lives in Nairobi, went for her, with a promise of ensuring her education. Although she took her to school, the minor was turned into a househelp for her aunty’s family. She would do almost all the house work before heading to school, and after.
Fast forward, and Covid-19 struck. After schools were shut, her aunt decided that she joins tens of men and women, including children, to work in the quarry to make ends meet. This, then made the slave like conditions she has been living in for the past five years work.
“I give all the money that earn here to my aunt to help run the family,’’ she says almost in a whisper. Miriam is among hundreds of children who are now subjected to child all manner of child labour during this Covid-19 period. And because of the containment and restriction measures that are in place to curb the spread of the deadly disease, no one really appears to care about what children go throw from their homes.
But Miriam is lucky. Her plight was brought to the attention of a compassionate child’s officer. It is now two weeks since she was rescued from this slavery. And God has been kind to the teenager. She is now happily living at a shelter that houses girls from abusive situations. When schools re-open, Miriam will join a new school and hopefully, happily start a new and successful phase in her future.
Miriam’s aunty and many like her world over have been using the cover of the dreaded virus to force children into labour.
Consequently, indications are that advances that had been made in battling child labour could be upturned after decades of progress, with the emergent of Covid-19.
The International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF says that child labour is likely to rise yet it had decreased by 94 million from the year 2000.
In their latest report, Covid-19 and Child Labour: A Time of crisis, A Time to Act the organisations say the pandemic could result in a rise in poverty and therefore to an increase in child labour as households use every available means to survive.
As opposed to adults, they say, children are more likely to accept work for less pay and in vulnerable conditions.
The report states that children are often the most available labour since households turn to children when they need more financial support.
“As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour. Social protection is vital in times of crisis, as it provides assistance to those who are most vulnerable,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said.
A previous study conducted in 2017 by UNICEF Kenya together with Kenya Bureau of Statistics, ‘Child Poverty in Kenya’ found that 45 per cent of children under 18 (9.5 million children), experience poverty.
According to the survey, several events negatively impacted the situation of women and children in 2017.
A severe drought affected almost half of the country’s 47 counties, driving up child malnutrition rates to very high levels.
By March, some 2.7 million drought-affected people required water, sanitation and hygiene assistance and 1.6 million children did not have enough to eat.
By September, due to continued lack of rainfall, 370,000 children were assessed to need treatment for acute malnutrition.
The report latest report now states that child labour is prevalent mainly in the informal economy, where children can easily step in as unskilled labourers.
Others might be forced to work in family businesses which generally gives little consideration to health and safety concerns. Girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation
“In times of crisis, child labour becomes a coping mechanism for many families. As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce,” ,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.
“As we re-imagine the world post-Covid, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools they need to weather similar storms in the future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game changers.”
The report further notes that the move by most governments around the world to temporarily close educational institutions to reduce the spread of virus raises many concerns around vulnerability.
School closures have affected more than 90 per cent of total enrolled learners, or about 1.6 billion students.
According to the report, despite many schools moving online with distance learning, nearly half the world has no access to the Internet, leaving many students even further behind.
As a result, children of legal working age may drop out of school and enter the labour market with limited education and skills.
“Evidence about child labour rising as schools close during the global shutdown is gradually mounting. Even when classes restart, some parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to school,” the report states.
From the report, many parents have taken advantage of the ‘holiday’ to send children to towns to sell fruits and vegetables.
According to the report, children deprived of family care as a result of the rising number of deaths from Covid-19 are particularly vulnerable to child labour, trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
Many workers, especially those in the informal sector, have no choice but to continue working, which increases their risks of falling ill. Households may face catastrophic health costs exacerbated by losing a household breadwinner or pension recipient.
The report recommends cash transfers to poor households to reduce child labour, adding that such programmes are especially valuable in helping households cope with economic shocks.
It however notes that prolonged Covid-19 emergency measures may strain the financial sustainability of the social security system.
Where children are exploited, the report recommends that upholding the rule of law is essential in guaranteeing their right to justice.
In addition, the report notes that since a range of innovative online and other distance learning measures have not benefited all children in all places and social groups, particular attention should be paid to the period right after lockdowns, when schools reopen.
“This will be a critical window to help children restart schooling and avoid permanently dropping out. “Second chance” and remedial “catch-up” learning will ensure that disadvantaged children whose education was most disrupted can succeed once they return to school.”
Also of concern is that before the virus struck, a total of 59 million primary-school aged children were already out of school globally.
The report states that this group must not be forgotten during and after the crisis.
To improve global monitoring of child labour, the two agencies are developing a simulation model to estimate the impact of Covid-19 on the global prevalence of child labour.
The model will consider the root causes discussed in this paper. Estimates will be released in 2021.