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Pandemic has eroded gains made on children’s well-being. Meeting the SDGs looks difficult

Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian Nobel Peace Laureate, has made a huge contribution to the advocacy for the rights and wellbeing of children not just in his homeland but also in Nepal and other countries. His organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (save childhood movement) has rescued thousands of Nepali children trafficked to India for work in factories, circuses, dance bars and even in brothels. As an advocate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals he has been appealing to the developed nations and wealthier communities to contribute for the education, health and well-being of children from the developing and low-income countries like Nepal. Satyarthi, who is currently in Nepal, spoke to the Post’s Binod Ghimire on the situation of children particularly after the Covid pandemic. Excerpts:

As the Covid pandemic has affected every community and people from all age groups, the children are no exception. In your opinion, how has the impact of the pandemic been on children from Nepal and India?

India and Nepal both have been facing the problem of child labour, child trafficking, out-of-school children, child sex abuse, child malnutrition and school dropout, among others. These problems will further rise if concrete and swift actions are not taken, not only by the government but also by society. The situation is serious. Those children who couldn’t participate in the teaching-learning process due to the Covid pandemic are unlikely to return to their schools, not just in Nepal, but in all parts of the world.

Before the pandemic, Nepal had made an impressive progress in child health and access to education. But now most of those gains are lost. How long do you think will it take to regain those losses?

I admire the Nepal government and especially its prime minister, who has been very sensitive to the issues of children. However, Nepal or no low-income country alone can address these issues effectively until and unless the global commitments, which have been made time and again for such countries, are fulfilled. The commitments on health, education and overall development of children must be fulfilled. That is very necessary because the Covid pandemic should have taught us that the world is interconnected and interdependent and no problem can be solved in isolation.

We have also seen the response by rich countries like the US and European countries, and their support to the low-income countries particularly Africa was not satisfactory. In the post-pandemic world, there has been a surge in child labour and child trafficking. Children, especially in Africa, have suffered a lot due to the pandemic. It is the moral responsibility of the world leaders particularly those from industrialised countries to support and handhold those who have been left behind.

So do you mean fighting the impacts of Covid-19 pandemic is not possible without collaborative efforts?

Of course, the world needs to collaborate. Therefore, Laureates and Leaders for Children–a group of 40 Nobel recipients and 50 world leaders including many former prime ministers, presidents, kings, queens, princes and princesses–has been working to ensure that low-income countries must get social protection. Low-income countries should also enhance their budgetary allocations towards the social protection and the well being of children, but it is also the responsibility of the rich countries.

Just 1.4 percent of what Europe spends on its social protection programme can ensure social protection including education, health care and wellbeing of all children and pregnant women in the developing and low-income countries. So we are demanding a global social protection fund. Being an advocate of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, I have been pushing for the creation of such a fund.

While we talk about collaborative efforts, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the regional platform of the countries from our region, remains defunct. How do you see this?

Of course even SAARC needs to be active. We know because of the pandemic situation, the priorities of countries have changed as they are more focussed on vaccinating their own populations and providing them relief. So issues like SAARC might have taken a back seat. Let’s hope things will gradually return to normal. We have to have a very dynamic and strong SAARC. I support all kinds of regional forums. They have the European Union, there is the African Union and I believe SAARC needs to be strong.

A majority of children, especially in rural Nepal, didn’t have access to alternative learning platforms during the pandemic. Do you think the pandemic is going to increase inequality among children?

Unfortunately this is a global phenomenon. Those who were rich and smart enough got the opportunity for study while others didn’t. Similarly, the affluent class made more profit during the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, a new billionaire was born every two and a half days.

We need around $23 billion annually for education, health care, protection and well-being of all children and all pregnant women from the marginalised communities in the developing nations. Considering what the rich earned during the pandemic, this is not a big sum. All we need is a proper action plan to tackle the problems faced by children.

While we expect the support from the wealthier nations, shouldn’t the affected countries themselves be investing more on the health and education of their children?

Of course. What I said is, on the one hand the international community and wealthier nations have to extend their support to the affected countries, and on the other hand, the low-income countries themselves should demonstrate interest and political will to fight the challenges brought by the pandemic.

Is it now possible to attain Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

It now looks difficult and challenging. Most of the goals are off track now. Every sector should consider the goals as their own and not just the government’s. The government has to take the lead but the private sector, civil society and everyone should collaborate to realise these goals.

In your address to the 74th UN Health Assembly last year, you appealed to the health ministers from across the globe for a budgeted action plan and taskforce to reach out to the poorest and the most marginalised children. Has there been any progress towards this end?

There has been progress in some parts of the world but unfortunately, when it comes to child labour, I am very angry. During the four pre-pandemic years–from 2016 and 2020–the number of child labourers grew for the first time in the two decades. Earlier it was falling down and we were happy. But in those four years, child labour numbers grew from 140 million to 160 million, which cannot be justified in any way. And the reverse progress happened against the backdrop of a global commitment to end child labour by 2025. We have failed our children. There is no excuse for this.

The world cannot hide behind the pandemic when it comes to the well-being of children. We have enough resources and must use them to mitigate the effects.

This interview originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post

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