Understanding the complexities of child labor in South Asia


Editor’s note: Alexander Ayertey Odonkor is an economic consultant, chartered financial analyst and a chartered economist with an in-depth understanding of the economic landscape of countries in Asia and Africa. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

A recent survey conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in seven countries in South Asia indicates that 16.7 million children are involved in child labor. The ages of these children ranges from 5-17 years with 5-14 year old children accounting for a population of 10.3 million and 5-11 year old children also representing one-fifth of all forms of child labor in the region. 

The prevalence of child labor among 5-17 year old children differs from one country to the other in South Asia. In India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, child labor among 5-17 year old children accounts for a population of 5.8 million, five million, 3.4 million and two million, respectively. With more than 26 percent of children aged 5-17 years, engaged in child labor, children in Nepal are highly exposed to child labor as compared to children in other countries in South Asia.

Also, the hazardous nature of employment offered to 5-17 year old children in the region varies from country to country. In Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, India and Bhutan the share of hazardous employment among 5-17 year old children is 75 percent, 72 percent, 41 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent and six percent, respectively. 

With a total of 30 million children engaged in various employment and 50 million children out of school in the region, these estimates could have been higher if children in Afghanistan were included in the survey.

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According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about 12 percent of children aged 5-14 years, representing more than 41 million are engaged in child labor in South Asia. Although child labor in the region has been reduced by one-third since 2000, efforts to eliminate this blight in these countries have been minimal. 

Factors such as migration, poverty, limited descent work opportunities and social norms contribute significantly to the high level of child labor in the area. Additionally, inequality as a result of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender has a conspicuous impact on the likelihood of children getting involved in child labor, whether they are exploited or not and even the type of work they will be offered. 

In South Asia, services of children are engaged in diverse industries such as agriculture, mining, carpet weaving, operation of brick kilns, domestic services and garment production. In extreme cases, children are offered in debt servitude, trafficking and also used as child soldiers. Through these nefarious activities, some children are exploited sexually by adults.

The agriculture sector hosts the largest number of child laborers in all South Asian countries. In India, the region’s most populous country, close to 56 percent of the total number of children involved in child labor are engaged in the agriculture sector where they cultivate cotton, rice, sugarcane, tobacco and other crops. Out of the entire number of children engaged in child labor, other sectors of the economy such as the manufacturing industry and services account for 33.1 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively.

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Although India has ameliorated efforts to eradicate the worst forms of child labor, there is still room for improvement. The National Child Labor Project Scheme extricated and rehabilitated 66,169 children in 2018-2019, an increase over the 47,635 children who were rescued in 2017-2018. To curb sexual exploitation of children in the country, the government of India has enacted the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act.

Also, to protect the rights of children in India, the Tamil Nadu State Government has ushered in directives to augment efforts to eliminate bonded labor by 2021.

Child labor in the agriculture sector can be alleviated if evidence-based policies are implemented effectively. In the quest for ideal solutions to eliminate child labor, it should be noted that these measures cannot be one-size-fits-all for all countries in South Asia. 

For every country in the region, there should be a broad consultation of all relevant stakeholders in a problem-solving process to identify alternative agricultural practices that relies largely on technological innovations to boost productivity, mitigate the functional and economic dependency of households on child labor in agricultural activities such as the cultivation of crops, livestock and aquaculture.

By frequently involving all relevant stakeholders in the agriculture sector in a manner where stakeholder inputs will impact the final outcome of decisions, there will be an enhanced awareness and knowledge sharing on the need to be child-labor responsive and discourage the use of children on farmlands and agriculture related activities.

In addition, there should be an integrated approach to child protection that also addresses inequality, poverty and improves access to quality education. Amendments should be made to labor laws in South Asian countries which mostly focuses on the formal sector and neglects the informal sector where there is high prevalence of child labor. 

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Punitive measures could be implemented to discourage the use of children in work related activities. Governments will have to collaborate with development partners to bring this desired result into fruition. Governments in the region should align their development policies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations which seeks to eradicate poverty, make quality education accessible, ensure gender equality and create decent work opportunities for the young.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)



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