Symposium: Protecting Children from Exploitation during the COVID-19 Pandemic

2 October 2020
Research Innovation

Claudia Cappa  | Senior Adviser for Statistics, UNICEF
Aniruddha Kulkarni  | Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF
Amanda Bissex  | Regional Advisor for Child Protection, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
Eshani Ruwanpura  | Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
Ramya Subrahmanian  |  Chief, Research on Child Rights and Protection, UNICEF-Innocenti

Photo credit: © UNICEF/UNI335716/

The mask 12-year-old Miajul wears offers scant protection from the toxic plastic hazardous waste he sorts through in the Shyamal Palli area of Dhaka. It’s no job for a child, but Miajul had little choice given the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 and containment measures taken by the Government of Bangladesh.

As similar scenarios are repeated in countries throughout South Asia and the world, millions of children globally are undertaking work as a matter of survival for themselves or their families. Over the last two decades, the number of children engaged in child labour has declined by 94 million. Now, the pandemic threatens to slow or even reverse that progress.

Pathways to exploitation

The COVID-19 crisis exacerbates child exploitation through various pathways. With the loss or reduction of household income, families increasingly need, and often expect, children to contribute financially or through time spent in family enterprises, including household chores. Parental care may be diminished—or lost altogether—due to death, illness or separation, raising the risk that children are exposed to exploitative or hazardous conditions. The economic crisis often means reduced caregiving, with detrimental effects in the long term. These factors may be aggravated by dislocations brought on by the pandemic, including family separation and migration.

Containment measures adopted by many countries to prevent and halt the spread of the coronavirus have disrupted children’s everyday lives, environs, routines and relationships. In many cases, girls are expected to take over a larger share of household duties, which can increase gender imbalances within the family. Moreover, some measures have interrupted reporting and referrals by child protection services, leaving many children adrift and even more vulnerable to violence and abuse. However, a combination of policies and targeted interventions point towards a way forward in a time of difficult choices for children, families and governments.

Creating a web of support

Not surprisingly, the pandemic is disproportionately hurting vulnerable population groups, such as migrant workers and those employed in the informal economy, including children. For instance, when Nepal went into lockdown, 2,384 children from 66 brick kilns began their journeys home, sometimes travelling 300 kilometres to reach their families. Due to travel restrictions, some were stranded at their worksite without access to adequate food or water. Reintegration into their communities was delayed due to  mandatory quarantine requirements in government-managed quarantine centres. In response, UNICEF is supporting community-based networks that ease the reintegration of these children back into their families and communities.

In Bihar, India about 20 per cent of returning migrants, some 600,000 individuals, were children, many travelling alone. Working in partnership with the state government, UNICEF is supporting the development of a database to register these children, identify their needs and connect them with appropriate services. Relief packages, including cash transfers, food, ration cards and basic hygiene supplies are being distributed. Child migrants are also enrolled in protection schemes, including access to support centres and counselling services.

In India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, UNICEF’s advocacy with the government has led to a temporary cash transfer to help offset COVID-19-related losses among daily wage earners and families of working children. It is expected to benefit nearly 2,000 children over the next six months. As an immediate response to the pandemic, expanding social protection measures that reach the most vulnerable must be a priority.

Building back better

This is a critical moment for the entire world, a time in which we must, as United Nations officials have repeatedly urged, “build back better”.

Measures that strengthen livelihoods, improve nutrition and offer access to primary and secondary health care need to reach the most vulnerable children and their families. Governments also need to reactivate social protection networks and expand economic stimulus measures. Previous global economic crises taught the importance of implementing such measures in child-sensitive and gender-responsive ways in order to achieve sustainable impacts on well-being. Earlier crises also point to the risk of austerity policies following short-term expansionary fiscal policies. Targeting near-poor or newly poor informal workers and at-risk families and children in the social protection response is crucial to prevent their falling into poverty traps.

“As governments seek to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, upholding children’s rights and following fundamental workplace principles have never been more urgent. These are levers that can transform this crisis into an opportunity for children as they transition to adulthood.”

Rapid investments are needed to keep children learning and preparing to return to schools when they re-open, so they are not sidelined into work. Millions of children, especially those who lack computers and Internet connectivity, now lag behind their better-equipped peers as a result of pandemic-related school closures. As schools slowly re-open, every child should have the opportunity to get an education. To keep children in school and out of the labour market, catch-up measures should be instituted for those left behind by the digital divide or the pandemic. ‘Second chance’ programmes, remedial learning and ‘teaching at the right level’ initiatives for children who have been released from work they started during pandemic-related closures can help prevent them from dropping out and re-engaging in child labour. Mauritania, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Singapore have been proactive in preparing remedial courses.

Upholding fundamental principles and rights

During the lockdowns, labour monitoring and inspections were drastically reduced. As economic activity gradually restarts, governments need to reinstitute oversight measures to be sure that the reopening of businesses—both formal and informal—does not compromise the health, rights and access to justice for the 88 million employed adolescents of legal working age (15 to 17 years old). Many businesses in the formal sector have devised return-to-work policies. The informal sector should do so as well, with governments providing guidelines in sync with international labour standards.

Communities are well-positioned to assist governments by monitoring local businesses for compliance. Local groups can also take the lead in supporting initiatives to support education and to change harmful social norms that perpetuate child labour. Trained social workers have vital roles to play in mitigating the impact of the crisis, from identifying vulnerable children and families to linking them with available health, education and child and social protection services.

As governments seek to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, upholding children’s rights and following fundamental workplace principles have never been more urgent. These are levers that can transform this crisis into an opportunity for children as they transition to adulthood. Such measures will also help build stronger, more resilient families, communities, societies and economies and prevent the coronavirus from entrenching intergenerational poverty.

This article has been prepared by Claudia Cappa, Aniruddha Kulkarni, Amanda Bissex, Eshani Ruwanpura and Ramya Subrahmanian as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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