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Although the international community has made important progress towards decreasing the prevalence of child labor in India over the past decades, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse such achievements.
In addition to the health crisis, India is set to face a catastrophic economic crisis, which will result in a significant number of jobs lost within India’s informal sector. With many parents losing their jobs, millions of children may be forced to work in order to compensate for the loss of parental income.
With 472 million children, India has the highest child population in the world. As the economic impacts of COVID-19 coincide with a rising global demand for cheap labor, the risk of forced child labor in India has never been higher.
Nonprofits, including ConnectAID’s partner FXB, are working tirelessly on the frontlines to rescue children from such situations and keep them out of the streets.
The international community is now being called to act. Financial support is urgently needed for families in India who have been forced to send their children to work during the pandemic. The reality is, if we don’t act now, millions of Indian children could fall victim to child labor, a pathway which is closely linked to human trafficking, bonded labor and sexual violence. Once on this path, there will be little hope of these children receiving an education and breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Child labour has long been a challenge in India, with many children working in street stalls, households, restaurants, unsafe factories, or as child beggars in order to earn enough to ensure their families daily survival.
According to the Indian Child Labor Amendment Law, it is illegal for children under the age of 14 to work.But outside the law, many employers deliberately replace adult workers with children in order to cut costs. Children are favoured even more so as they are more likely to accept minimal remunerations, unsafe working conditions and far less likely to raise formal complaints for harm or harassment caused. Young girls are the most at-risk group, with employers often keeping them in bonded labor contracts, the equivalent of modern-day slavery, trafficking them or exposing them to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
With COVID-19 set to plunge millions of families below the poverty line, many children will inevitably end up in the formal labor market over the next few months. As a response to this emerging crisis, many Child-Protection Groups have been working tirelessly to alert the police and rescue children from possible exploitation. Unfortunately, due to lack of public awareness of the Child Labor Law and poor enforcement by local authorities, many children continue working in such dangerous conditions.
Studies reveal that poverty is the major driving force for parents pushing their children to work. This is particularly true for migrant workers who already face severe economic challenges and citizenship barriers. For migrant families, there is no other option than to put all hands on deck, including those of their children, to survive during this global pandemic.
Many children have also had to migrate all alone across India in search of work; many have travelled from remote regions of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi. Unaccompanied children are at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation. This issue is not only affecting the poor, many children from middle-income families have also been thrust into the workforce as a result of COVID-19.
The situation is further compounded with the closure of schools across the country. While this may contain the virus, parents are then more inclined to send their children out to work. There is great uncertainty as to whether or not these children will be able to return to school once they reopen. With the harsh reality of poverty ahead of them and a sense of hopelessness from the pandemic, many parents may have no choice if they are to ensure their families survival.
The Indian government does have a welfare scheme in place; however, assistance does not reach everybody. Despite this, there is strong evidence that when welfare resources are provided to families, the majority of parents do withdraw their children from work and send them back to school.
ConnectAID’s partner, FXB-India has been doing its part to provide assistance to the most marginalized communities in India through programs focused on alleviating poverty the root cause of so many issues for Indian children. Some of the key areas of focus include providing children with protection mechanisms, improving healthcare, access to education, as well as water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure.
With the many complex and interconnecting problems children and their families face, it is clear we must act. We invite you to be proactive and get involved in this initiative. Any contribution to our projects will go a long way in keeping children in school and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty.
by Nadine Hakizimana
Source: ILO | UNICEF | FXB International