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Child Labour: A Time of Crisis, A Time to Act

Two recent reports, published in the United Nations International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), co-custodians of target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), paint a grim picture of the stagnating or worsening situation of child labour in the current pandemic. Based on household surveys across the globe, the reports indicate that 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – were in child labour at the beginning of 2020. Alarmingly, nearly half of all those in child labour were involved in hazardous work directly endangering their health, safety and moral development.

Of increasing concern is the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more children are in child labour than in the rest of the world combined. Other dimensions of the worldwide child labour profile include:

  • Involvement in child labour is higher for boys than girls at all ages (except when the definition of child labour expands to include household chores!)
  • Child labour is much more common in rural areas
  • Most child labour – for boys and girls alike – continues to occur in agriculture
  • The largest share of child labour takes place within families

The Covid-19 crisis continues to heighten the risk of child labour exacerbated by a sharp rise in poverty increasing families’ reliance on child labour. As a result of poverty, driven by the pandemic and a decrease in social protection measures and workplace monitoring, new analysis suggests a further 8.9 million children will be in child labour by the end of 2022.

Child labour is frequently associated with children being out of school. A large share of younger children in child labour are excluded from school despite falling within the age range for compulsory education. Child labourers struggle to balance the demands of school and labour at the same time, compromising their education, right to leisure and future prospects of work. Since March 2020 Covid-related school closures have denied families the logical alternative to sending children to work.

The ILO and UNICEF reports highlight numerous policy imperatives for reducing child labour. Of particular interest to our Mary Ward network is the need to address gender norms and discrimination that increase the risks of child labour, particularly related to the hidden labour of girls in domestic and unpaid household work. Apart from obvious measures, such as extending social protection for families and ensuring free and good-quality schooling, we are urged to address child labour risks in domestic and global supply chains and be attentive to the heightened risk of child labour in growing crises, conflicts and disasters.

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that international co-operation and partnership in overcoming global challenges is possible. Our Mary Ward commitment to: the SDGs, Laudato Si Action Plan and action/awareness-raising during the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour on the 12th of each month, involves a promise to help end child labour by 2025. There is no time to lose.

Read the full report: Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward – International Labour Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund, 2021

Read: COVID-19 and Child Labour: A Time of Crisis, A Time to Act – International Labour Organisation and United Nations Children’s Fund, 2021

Author: Anne Muirhead, Province UN Representative, Australia and South East Asia IBVM-Loreto