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Child Labour: How Long Can We Fail Our Children?

(The commentary has been written by Sourav Sanyal, Director of the Office of Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi)


Back in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by world leaders with a firm commitment to end all forms of child labour by 2025. As we observe the World Day Against Child Labour today, we realise how far we are from achieving our goal. The clock is ticking.


In June last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF set alarm bells ringing. They announced the first shocking increase in the number of child labourers worldwide in two decades. This happened during the four years of the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals between 2016 and 2019.


The global estimates released by ILO and UNICEF are stupefying, to say the least. A staggering 160 million children - including 63 million girls and 97 million boys - were engaged as child labour at the beginning of 2020. Which roughly translates to 1 out of every 10 children.


Of these, while nearly 79 million children were engaged in hazardous work, the number of children engaged in child labour in Sub-Saharan Africa alone shot up to a whopping 86 million. And all this happened even as the world grew $10 trillion richer even before the onset of the pandemic.


All this has had a devastating impact on the health, well-being, safety and holistic development of these children. We have failed them and how.


Covid-19 has only exacerbated the situation. Mounting economic shocks, dwindling family incomes and prolonged closure of schools has put the lives of nearly 9 million additional children globally at the risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of this year.


The fact is, be it in Ghana or Guatemala, Dhaka or Delhi, children continue to bear the brunt. In India alone, per the 2011 Census, the total number of child labourers stood at 10.13 million. However, the crackdown against child labour leaves much to be desired. Going by the latest Crime in India 2020 report released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), only 705 child labourers were rescued through the 476 FIRs that were registered under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act.


While the statistics hold up a mirror, the truth is - despite millions of dollars in investment, innumerable policy and programmatic interventions - child labour has increased, making the 2025 target even more difficult to achieve, thereby amplifying the gap between planning and transfer of benefits.


Africa, for instance, is home to more than half of the world's child labour, which is more than total number of children in the USA and Europe. This is because of systemic inequalities in our world order, the brunt of which is borne by Africa's children, and is a manifestation of our discriminatory mindset. This means denying Africa children's their fair share in policies and financial resources of the world, inadequate representation of global South representation in international institutions and the deprioritisation of the issue of child labour in our social and political narratives.


We cannot claim to uphold the SDGs when within its first four years we have reversed the progress made over decades. Our words and promises are empty and have no meaning to a child who is suffering. If we fail our children, we have failed as a generation.


Is it so difficult to fathom what 17-year-old Tara Banjara reiterated at the 5th Global Conference on Elimination of Child Labour held in Durban last month? Sharing the stage with ILO Director General Guy Ryder, she shared her story of how she was rescued from child labour and pursued her dreams. Determined to become a police officer, Tara emphasized how we need to change our mindset of taking for granted that the only place for children from disempowered communities is the quagmire of child labour instead of schools.


A promising lawyer, Amar Lal, who was rescued from a brick kiln by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, brought up yet another dimension at Durban. Just a fraction of the money spent on buying weapons and building military infrastructure could go a long way in addressing the scourge of child labour, he said.


A champion of child rights, Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi sees social protection as one of the most potent tools in the fight against child labour. Demanding a fair share for children in our policies and allocation of resources, he urged upon world leaders at the Durban conference to work towards direct social protection for children, which will not only ensure access and continuity of education, but also protect children from multiple risks and unpredictability, which can in an instant throw them back to exploitation.


Considering that 74% children worldwide and 90% children in low-income countries live without social protection coverage, this should now become the guiding principle. Just $53 billion annually - which is less than 10 days of military expenditure - would help extend social protection to all children and pregnant women in low income countries.


In western countries, where the majority of expenditure is on social security, child labour has almost been wiped out. Even in the developing world, we have evidence in Brazil, targeting areas where child labour was high - Conditional Cash Transfers to households in the poorest quintile, with reductions in child labour and increased school attendance across Brazil.


The Mid Day Meal programme in India has resulted in over 95% enrolment in school, along with a significant impact on reducing stunting.


It cannot be business as usual. We know the problem. We know the solutions. What we need is courage, compassion and collective will to make better decisions and hold ourselves and each other accountable.


Unless children are mainstreamed in our policies and budgets, the scourge of child labour cannot be eliminated in isolation. No development agenda is achievable if millions of children are trapped in factories, farms, or mines.


This is the only way to end child labour. No amount of economic growth will be sustainable if a million and more from our current and future generation are in slavery.

Can we keep failing our children?


This Commentary originally appeared in NDTV

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