FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 7

Mortgaged future

One in seven children has to work to support their families in Gilgit-Baltistan. The situation may not be different in other parts of the country. It is feared that a large number of children might have been forced to leave school and work after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It not only portrays a bleak future for the children but also serious repercussions for the country.

According to a recent survey, the number of child workers in Gilgit-Baltistan is over 50,000. This rate of child workers must have been the worst in Pakistan or even the world, as the total population of the area is just 1.249 million. It needs urgent action from the Central and regional governments to find out reasons behind the issue and address them. According to the “Gilgit-Baltistan Child Labour Survey 2018-19,” conducted in collaboration with UNICEF, many children work in hazardous conditions and are almost twice as likely to report mental health problems. The survey, the first in the country since 1996 and the largest in GB, with a representative sample of 7,032 households from all the 10 districts, represented nearly 400,000 children between the ages of five and 17, living across urban and rural areas of the region. Children from poorer households are more likely to be in child labour compared to children from richer households by various measures. Average household income is higher for children, who are not in child labour.

The survey also highlights that almost 30 per cent of children aged five to 17 in GB do not attend school. Amongst those who attend school, there is gender disparity with 88 per cent boys and 77 per cent girls. Child labour prevalence is lower among children living in a household where the household head has migrated, compared to the children living in a household where the household head never migrated. It reported that 0.2 per cent of girls aged 10 to 13 and 7.4 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 have married. Less than one in three children has a birth certificate, with the percentage being 1.3 points higher for boys than girls and higher for children in older age groups, with a difference of 14.8 percentage points between children aged five to nine and children aged 14 to 17.

More than a quarter of all households have at least one child in labour. The child labour rate decreases with the wealth of the household. Almost 40 per cent of households in the poorest wealth quintile have a working child. The percentage of households with at least one working child is three times as high in rural areas compared to urban areas where the child labour rate is 10 per cent. The children involved in labour live on average in households with slightly fewer members compared to children not in labour. Children in labour are less likely to live with both parents, and more likely to have lost at least one parent.

The households where the highest education completed by the household head is any grade of primary school are the most likely to have at least one child in labour and the percentage of households with at least one child in labour decreases with the level of education of the household head and is about 10 percentage points lower for households where the household head obtained higher education compared to the average of 26.7 per cent.

Over 14.8 percent of students are neither in school nor working. These children are particularly vulnerable to becoming engaged in child labour. The survey suggests that it is important to understand why these children do not attend school, especially as schools in the public sector are providing free education in GB. The survey recommends that since child labour is a complex issue, it is imperative to devise a coordinated policy response, focusing education, social protection, labour markets and legal standards and regulations.

According to the UN, some 160 million boys and girls worldwide, almost one in 10, are forced into work. The majority, 112 million, or around 70 per cent, work in crop production, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. Child labour is a serious violation of human rights. It deprives boys and girls of their childhood, their potential and dignity, while also being harmful to their physical and mental development. Although not all work carried out by children is considered child labour, much of it is not age-appropriate and many vulnerable families, especially in rural areas, have no choice. Contributing factors include low family incomes, few livelihood alternatives, limited access to education, inadequate labour-saving technologies, and traditional attitudes surrounding children’s participation in agriculture. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to these issues, the UN noted.

South Asia has more than 16.7 million children eking out a living. On the subcontinent of 1.82 billion people, the agriculture sector hosts the largest number of child labourers. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have child worker populations of 5.8 million, 5 million, 3.4 million and 2 million respectively, a survey by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found in 2020.

The number of child workers was 3.4 million in Pakistan in 2020. The number must have risen after the onset of the pandemic. Some of the solutions involve providing income support for vulnerable families, better healthcare and education, and expanding social and child protection.