Crisis vs children’s wellbeing

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The World Day against Child Labour is an International Labour Organisation (ILO) – sanctioned holiday, first launched in 2002 aiming to raise awareness and activism to prevent child labour. This year’s (2022) World Day against Child Labour is commemorated under the theme, “Universal Social Protection to End Child Labour.”

Poverty and armed conflicts are the key factors that contribute to the increasing of child labour, worldwide especially in the under-developed countries. When the families are dragged into abject poverty due to unemployment, disease or loss of the sole wage earner, children are more likely to be on the receiving end, as the families would turn to their children for economic support. This condition has disastrously aggravated during the past few years due to the crises related to COVID-19 and armed conflicts in several countries.

The crisis has affected the whole socio-political and financial structures worldwide, collapsing the economies of many countries and resulting in detrimental effects in social channels through which children could fall into labour, exploitation and abuse, including fall in living standards; deteriorating employment opportunities; rise in informality; reduction in remittances and migration; contraction of trade and foreign direct investment; temporary school closures; health shocks; pressure on public budgets and international aid flows.  According to the joint report of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and ILO, approximately 160 million children have been subjected to child labour at the beginning of 2020, with 9 million additional children at risk due to the impact of COVID-19. It means that one of each 10 children across the globe has been employed.

Migrant and refugee children, who are uprooted from their native lands due to armed conflicts and military activities, are very vulnerable during these times, making them prone to child labour, human trafficking and abuse. They are made to work under jeopardising conditions to make a living. Girls, especially, become victims of various forms of abuse and harassments within these circumstances. UNICEF reports that boy children are subjected to cruelty, violence and sexual abuse by armed forces or groups, especially when they migrate alone or using illegal routes with families. The UNICEF-ILO joint briefing paper highlights that the incidence of hazardous work in countries affected by armed conflict is 50 per cent higher than the global average.

Multiple consequences

Whatever the case it is, child labour is compound of social inequities, discrimination and has staggering consequences on individuals as well as on the whole social entity. Unlike the children engaging in light household activities and assist parents in non-hazardous, light activities, through which they develop and socialise, the children subjected to labour are deprived of both personal and social wellbeing and development as they are affected mental as well as physical harm and even death sometimes. Child labour prevents children from schooling, health and protection, and thus violates even the very basic human rights.

Sri Lanka and child labour

Having COVID-19 stormed across the country for several years, the condition of child labour in Sri Lanka also is not much different from the global condition. When people in numbers lost their jobs and had to close their small and medium scale businesses due to the pandemic, the Hobson’s choice with which they were left was to send the children to work for a meagre income that would just buy the day’s food. According to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) website, the authority has received 11,187 children-related complaints in the last year with the majority of complaints coming from Colombo and Gampaha districts. When considering the type of abuse of the complaints cruelty, sexual harassment, and neglect top the list while there are also cases of child labour, rape, abduction, trafficking, and begging.

Now, the situation is much worse given that the country is facing a very severe economic crisis. Many children can be spotted along the roads, selling some product or asking for some money, or waiting in long fuel queues while the parent waits in the gas queue. Seeing no end to this tragedy, Ceylon Today contacted the NCPA to get some insight into the situation and programmes they have launched to ensure the wellbeing of the children.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Director – Planning and Media of NCPA, Shanika Malalgoda mentioned that these cases are socially sensitive since the present situation has a much larger humanitarian aspect. “In fact, helping out parents in their small scale business or light household chores is not a crime and is quintessential for the child’s personal development and proper socialisation also. Let’s imagine that my mother is running a small pastry shop or a bread business. So, shouldn’t it be okay to deliver a few loafs of bread to a customer and help out my mother who provides me food, health, facilities for education and so on?” Malalgoda shared, explaining the context.

However she further stated that they have received information on some such practices which have developed into child racketeering and the NCPA is currently taking steps to enforce law against them. “We always take actions against those incidents, but there are practical challenges that we face when enforcing law. Let’s say we spot such situation and take it to the court, but the adults claim the child to be their own. In such situations, even the child would claim that adult be their parent. So we are helpless. We still take measures to get the ownership of the child confirmed and proceed with the case, but it takes time” Malalgoda shared further.

Child protection is a social responsibility

“True that we need laws and acts to protect children, but they alone can’t do it. We all should understand that we share an equal and great responsibility towards ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our children as members of society.  Our focus should be on building up a social behaviour which pushes, and encourages everyone to take care of every child instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them.” Malalgoda expressed. Also, the authority is launching a flyer campaign today, to create awareness among the public.

The NCPA, in fact, has taken numerous steps to ameliorate social awareness regarding child protection to coincide with the World Day against Child Labour 2022. Elaborating on that, Malalgoda stated that the authority has prepared a special news release to inform the public regarding the tendency for child labour during the times of crisis. “Indeed there is a danger of children being subjected to labour, exploitation, abuse and child-marriages during this crisis. Since we have properly identified this threat, we have already informed our district and regional officers to be alert and take necessary precautions to ensure the safety of children. The objective of the news release is to ameliorate public awareness.” Malalgoda spoke.

Secondly, the NCPA has in advance organised an islandwide art, poster and cartoon competition named ‘Sithuvili Siththam’ open for school children, university students/students of higher educational institutions, teachers, professionals and adults, making it open for anyone in the country, to ensure community awareness regarding child protection. The NCPA mentioned to the readers that the deadline for submission of arts has been extended till 30 June 2022 and invited everyone to take part in the competition too. Moreover they stated that they would highly appreciate if any sponsors could step up to assist the authority in this endeavour. “We will gather the ideas expressed in these arts and utilise them in planning our future child protection programmes. So, this is a great opportunity for everyone to contribute in ensuring the safety of our children.” shared Malalgoda.

The NCPA finally stressed that there hotline 1929 is always open for complaints regarding violation of child safety and child rights and thus requested the public to reach them out if any such incident is observed.

By Induwara Athapattu