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Review: UNICEF report notes that an additional 9 million children could be pushed into Child Labour if no additional measures are taken

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The UNICEF & ILO’s report on the global child labour estimates for 2020 notes that 9 million children could be pushed into Child Labour if no additional measures are taken by countries. The report also notes that the number could rise to 46.2 million by the end of 2022 if no immediate action is taken, and if austerity measures or other factors cause slippage in social protection coverage.

Beyond exploitation, Child labour results in bodily and mental harm of children. Slavery, economic exploitation, and sexual exploitation of children cannot be ruled out. Children also miss out on the opportunity to go to schools and access to health care which is a restriction of their fundamental rights. Their future is also compromised because of child labour. 

The UN General Assembly declared the year 2021 as the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour so that the international community steps up efforts to eradicate forced labour and child labour. The target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls on the global community to: ‘Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.  Both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are the co-custodians of this goal. 

The progress towards this goal may have taken a severe hit in the light of the misery caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Various reports from global multilateral agencies indicate that a considerable number of children may be pushed into child labour as a result of the pandemic. 

One in every ten children is a victim of child labour globally

In spite of the progress and development, child labour continues to be a persistent problem in today’s world. According to a recently published study from ILO and UNICEF, Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward,  globally 160 million children aged between 5 to 17 years including 63 million girls and 97 million boys were engaged in child labour at the beginning of 2020.  Nearly half of them, about 79 million children were engaged in hazardous work which is defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals.  The number has risen by 6.5 million since 2016. 

Pandemic might result in another 46 million children pushed into child labour if no immediate action is taken

Data from the recent UNICEF reports indicates that since the year 2000, the total number of children engaged in various forms of child labour has dropped by 35% in 2020 while those engaged in hazardous work has dropped 54% during the same period. However, the number of children engaged in both hazardous and non-hazardous work has increased in 2020 compared to the year 2016. 

However, the percentage of children engaged in child labour remained unchanged over the four-year period. The report estimates that 8.9 million more children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 because of COVID-19 if no additional measures are taken. This number could rise to 46.2 million by the end of 2022 if no immediate action is taken, and if austerity measures or other factors cause slippage in social protection coverage.

Sub-Saharan Africa has reported an increase in child labour

As per the report, population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures have resulted in an additional 16.6 million children pushed into child labour in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 2016. More children are engaged in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa there than the rest of the world combined. Other areas- Asia-Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean have shown progress. However, the report notes that COVID-19 might endanger this progress. School closures and additional economic shocks due to the pandemic might make children more vulnerable. 

Labour among children aged 5 to 11 years has witnessed an increase

Age group-wise data indicates that child labour among children aged 12 to 14 years, and 15 to 17 years, has declined since 2016 whereas, among young children aged 5 to 11 years, the progress has slowed down. In 2020, there were an additional 16.8 million children in the 5 to 11 age group engaged in child labour as compared to 2016. A few other key observations of the report include-

  • More boys are involved in child labour than girls. 11.2% of boys and 7.8% of girls globally are involved in child labour.
  • Child labour is more prominent in rural areas. In rural areas, 13.9% of children are engaged in child labour which is close to three times the proportion in urban areas where 4.7% of children are engaged in child labour.
  • 70% of all children engaged in child labour, around 112 million children in total, are in agriculture.
  • About 72% of all child labour takes place in families, which tends to be hazardous. They are engaged in family farms and microenterprises. 
  • Though most children involved in child labour fall in the age group of compulsory education, it is observed that more than a quarter of children aged 5 to 11 years, and more than one-third of children aged 12 to 14 years, do not go to school. 

COVID-19 might impede the past gains in Child Labour

Over the last four years (between 2016 & 2020), the progress made in bringing children out of child labour has been obstructed with more children getting to child labour. On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail the progress made in the past two decades. The report notes that it is incredibly important that all countries take necessary & immediate action to prevent this from happening. For this, the ILO and UNICEF have made certain recommendations that need to be implemented with immediate effect. These include-

  • Increased social protection for both families and children to mitigate the financial problems which may push children into child labour such as promotion of rural livelihoods and employment for adults in the family
  • Extending free and quality schooling for children
  • Ensuring registration of childbirths
  • Put an end to gender norms and discrimination
  • Stringent implementation of laws, regulations, and programmes aimed at child protection

The government of India launched the PM-CARES for Children’ scheme to support orphaned children 

The Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojana was announced in March 2020 by the Government of India to extend help to the poor & vulnerable affected by the pandemic. The scheme included providing free food grains, monetary allowance etc. for a few months. 

The second wave of COVID-19 in India has resulted in increased deaths and breadwinners in most families have succumbed to the virus. In some families, both parents passed away leaving behind children. As these orphaned children are more vulnerable to exploitation, the Indian government announced a new scheme in May 2021. The scheme aims to help all children who have lost both parents or surviving parents or legal guardian/adoptive parents due to COVID-19. Under the ‘PM-CARES for Children’ scheme, the following measures are extended to eligible children. 

  • Corpus fund of Rs. 10 Lakh for each child when they turn 18 years old which will be utilized to give monthly stipend for five years (between 18-23 years) after they turn adults. And upon turning 23, they will be given the corpus amount as one lump sum for personal and professional use.
  • For children under 10 years, they will be admitted to the nearest Kendriya Vidyalaya or a private school as day scholar. Expenses will be taken care of under PM-CARES as per Right to Education (RTE) norms. PM-CARES will also pay for expenditure on uniforms, textbooks and notebooks.
  • For those aged 11 to 18 years, admission will be provided in Sainik schools, or Navodayas, or any Central Government residential schools. 
  • Support in the form of scholarships and education loans will be extended for Higher Education.
  • All children will be enrolled in Ayushman Bharat Scheme (PM-JAY) with a health insurance cover of Rs. 5 lakhs and PM-CARES funds will be used for paying the premium till the age of 18 years. 

Apart from this, a centrally sponsored Child Protection Services (CPS) Scheme is also being implemented to help children in difficult circumstances.

Implementation of the various legal statutes is the need of the hour

There are multiple laws and initiatives in India aimed at protecting children and prevent exploitation. Many of these are aimed at alleviating child labour in the country. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 is being implemented which states that ‘no child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment’.

The National Child Labour Project (NCLP) Scheme for the eradication of child labour is also being implemented under which children are rescued from work and are provided with bridge education, vocational training, mid-day meal, stipend, health care, etc. before being mainstreamed into the formal education system. India is also a signatory of various conventions of ILO aimed at ending child labour such as the Minimum Age Convention, Worst forms of Child Labour Convention, Forced Labour Convention, etc. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also works towards the protection of the rights of the children in the 0 to 18 years age group. 

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as more children have been pushed to the edges of vulnerability, it is important that the laws & schemes aimed at child welfare are implemented with greater rigour. Spreading awareness, encouraging parents/guardians to send their children to school, economic support to poor & vulnerable families is the need of the hour to ensure proper implementation of the laws & schemes. 

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