Government is yet to compile a dataset of children leaving schools due to pandemic
Children from the poorer sections of the society have emerged as the worst sufferers of the pandemic as many have been forced to drop out from schools and into child labour.
Child rights activists and experts observe that if the government does not act fast, the progress made in the last few decades could be reversed.
The target to end hazardous child labour by 2021 is nowhere in sight, and they suspect that it may further delay the government’s target to eradicate child labour by 2025.
Child labour has been slashed by 94 million since 2000, according to the UN.
A latest UN report, a joint initiative by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Unicef, says that the Covid-19 pandemic may push million more children into child labour.
While unveiling the report at a press briefing on Friday, Unicef chief Henrietta Fore said: "We are losing ground in the fight to end child labour. The Covid-19 crisis is making a bad situation even worse."
The authorities of Bangladesh are yet to compile a dataset of children leaving schools due to pandemic.
According to a recent report by Educo Bangladesh, approximately 72.33% of the working children claimed that they must work to make ends meet for their families.
The study was carried out last year in Dhaka, Satkhira and Cox’s Bazar interviewing 940 children, and through focus group discussions with 27 children. Besides these, 44 parents, teachers and NGO workers were also interviewed for the research.
One in five children (19.28%) said that they started working as their families could not afford schooling costs. Approximately 4.61% of the working children responded saying that they were forced by their parents into child labour at an early age, according to the study.
Among the respondents, one-third of the children (32.85%) said that they suffered from physical injuries at their workplaces, around 14.94% suffered from mental health issues, 29.75% faced verbal abuse, 7.53% experienced physical torture, 3.67% suffered from economic exploitation and 0.23% children were subjected to sexual abuse.
The Educo study identified the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on poorer sections of the society. Lack of updated and appropriate child labour data, economic vulnerability of the poor families, poor implementation of laws and policies have been deemed the biggest challenges to tackle child labour and the major cause of possible drop outs from school.
How do the children feel?
Visiting Dhaka’s Gabtoli area, some children aged from 8 to 11 were seen around some human haulers beside the traffic police outpost near Porbot Cinema Hall.
One of them, Md Badal, who is an ex-student of an NGO-run school in Mohammadpur area, said that his father had sent him back to work.
In his own words, his father was right in telling him to earn as there was no certainty when the school would reopen, and their family desperately needed the money due to his low income.
A domestic worker in Rayerbazar area, Liza, 13, understands that during the time of pandemic, when her mother lost her regular job, children like her need to help the family.
But she believed that children should be given a chance to study as well, while working.
“If we could continue work and study simultaneously, it would have been better. I don’t like to work as a house help; I only love to study. I wish I could do any other job,” she added.
Experts and government’s take
Halima Akter, manager (policy and advocacy) of Educo Bangladesh, said that they had targeted to withdraw 300 children from child labour and put them back in schools.
“We had 146 children enrolled in the schools at Mohammadpur before the pandemic. But, now we fear that due to the long gap in their education, we may lose the majority of them,” she added.
The NGO worker said that they currently had no data on how many children had gone back to their native villages or migrated elsewhere, and what portion of them had left school to earn a living.
She said that they, along with 17 other organizations of the country, generally work for child rights’ protection. They are looking to implement a safe “back to school” campaign.
The campaign is in collaboration with the Primary and Mass Education Ministry and the Labour Ministry to bring the possible dropouts, especially those who involved in child labour and deprived, to the education system.
Educo Bangladesh Country Director Abdul Hamid stated that as the pandemic brought turmoil to families, many could resort to child labour for money.
He said: “As the schools are still closed, many children may get pushed into working for a livelihood to cope with the on and off lockdown. Aligning with the SDG 8.7, the government has set a target to eliminate hazardous forms of child labour by 2021 and all forms of child labour by 2025.
“As we re-imagine the world post-Covid-19, we need to make sure we can fulfill the target, and at the same time ensure that no child should be involved in any form of child labour, at least until he or she has completed compulsory education. This measure should be strictly regulated by law.”
Lawmaker Md Mujibul Haque, who is also the chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, admits that the number of children in the labour market may increase due to the fall in income of people due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He, however, said that the government was doing their best to reduce child labour. He hoped that urgent measures after the end of the lockdown would improve the scenario.
In February this year, the government announced six sectors of the country – tannery, glass, ceramic, ship recycling, export-oriented leather and footwear, and sericulture – free from child labour. With the announcement, a total of eight sectors are now free from child labour.
Earlier, the export-oriented RMG and the shrimp processing industries were declared free from child labour.
Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum Director Abdus Sahid Mahmood claimed that the government had failed to end hazardous child labour by 2021 as anticipated before.
“The pandemic has just made the attempts even longer.
“The horrifying matter is that they [the government] do not provide any new plan in this regard. Besides, they need to act fast in order to reopen the education centres, ensuring the health safety of the children,” he added.