A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF says that, globally, the number of children in child labour has increased by 8.4 million in the last four years. As such, the total number of children in child labour now stands at 160 million. Worse, it is feared that the existing pandemic brunt may exacerbate the situation further.
The ILO/UNICEF report draws a rather bleak picture of the global profile on child labour. Clearly, it is a reversal of what was achieved in the past (9.4 million children saved from the curse between 2000 and 2016).
Many factors are behind this reversal during the past four years. Political unrest, natural disaster, famine, impacts of climate change, epidemic, unplanned parenthood etic are to name but a few of the factors behind the rise in the number of labouring children. Most importantly, the lack of political will on the part of the international community, especially, the rich countries to support the cause as well as the lackadaisical attitude of the political leadership of the host governments towards the problem of child labour is mostly to blame for the pre-pandemic reverses suffered by the efforts to combat the curse of child labour.
Turning out attention to the situation in Bangladesh, there is nothing to write home about it. The first wave of the pandemic caused millions to lose their jobs and work opportunities both in the urban and the rural areas. And the situation was more pronounced among the people falling under the low-income bracket. Many of these new categories of unemployed in the urban areas migrated to their ancestral homes in the rural areas where the situation was no better. Now consider this. According to the ILO/UNICEF, agriculture contributes 70 per cent to the global estimate of child labour. Bangladesh is no exception to this. So, more unemployed people are joining the rural masses there. But left with few or no job opportunities in agriculture or other related activities in the countryside, hunger is staring these families and their children in the face. And the second wave of the pandemic has only worsened their situation!
But as elsewhere, there has been no census done in recent time to enumerate the actual number of children forced into such hopeless situation along with their other family members.
In the circumstances, what should be the priorities before the government, the child right activities and the NGOs working for children's welfare?
These children from the very poor families including those rendered destitute recently by the pandemic and now fighting for mere survival have to be saved first. Since the children of these families are in a desperate search of work for survival, they run the risk of being drawn into the underworld of crime, trafficking as well as hazardous work.
But the child right activists have expressed their concern that the children that dropped out of school recently may not return to school due to the pandemic. Also, some NGOs are worried that the government may not succeed in meeting its target of bringing children engaged in hazardous work out of child labour by 2021. They even fear that the government's aim to abolish child labour entirely by 2025 may be delayed.
Considering the situation obtaining, there should be a rethink of the priorities set during the pre-pandemic days. In the absence of adequate government support to save the new destitute from hunger, it would be hard to tell these families in dire want that they bring back their children from work, if they are at all engaged in any work. Now the priority on the part of the government, NGOs and pro-child rights groups and others concerned should be to extend all-out support to the families and their children fighting for their physical survival in this hard time. And once the struggle against this pandemic-inflicted extreme hunger is over, the school drop-outs among these children may be persuaded to return to their classes.