The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected children’s lives worldwide negatively affecting the enjoyment of fundamental rights such as education, health and nutrition. This exploratory research led by Kindernothilfe between May – July 2020 shows how the challenges facing working children and their families have been exacerbated since the outbreak and it presents their recommendations for effective and relevant responses to the pandemic.
In collaboration with six child-focused NGO partners from Bolivia (PASOCAP), Guatemala (CEIPA), Indonesia (PKPA), Kenya (WCY), the Philippines (Kaugmaon), and Zambia (JCM) and Children’s Advisory Committees in each country the exploratory research gathered the views, experiences and messages of 25 boys, 21 girls, and 9 caregivers. The children and young people aged 7 to 17 years were primarily working in informal sectors, such as small-scale vendors, waste collectors, street singers, fruit loaders, tailors, and assistants (for masonry, bakery and shoemaker). Some worked in the agricultural sector.
At the time of the study there were partial lockdowns in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Zambia; and full lockdowns, including curfew measures in Bolivia, Guatemala and Kenya. Confinement measures have particularly affected working children’s and families’ income and livelihoods. Lockdowns, health risks, and the closure of public markets and several economic sectors left many child workers and their caregivers either unemployed or with less income. They have tried to adapt their work but, in most cases, it has not enabled sufficient family income. During the lockdown, some families relied exclusively on humanitarian assistance provided by international and local NGOs and/or faith based organisations. The limited access to government subsidies and services was compounded by insufficient information, internet access and difficulties to meet the requirements for government assistance.
Many working children were already struggling to pay tuition fees and school materials before the pandemic. Since the outbreak their access to education has been adversely affected. The school closures made digital exclusion more evident, particularly for children living in poverty. For many working children, the lack of internet access, computers or smart phones and internet costs made it difficult for girls and boys to pursue their education during the pandemic. Some of them tried to continue home-school either via WhatsApp and Zoom, while some others tried to follow lessons on TV, radio, or through printed lessons. Challenges at this level included low literacy level of caregivers to support children’s education. Children miss going to school and seeing their friends, but remain hopeful to be able to continue their education and go back to their school routine.
Physical health and nutrition deteriorated for working children since the outbreak. Most of the families reported either having less access to food, eating smaller portions, having a reduced number of meals per day, or having a less balanced diet. Some children faced malnutrition. However, a minority of children are eating better than before as they spend their days at home and have even gained weight. Many girls and boys are resting more during the pandemic due to loss of work and home base restrictions, although some experience more physical exhaustion since the pandemic because they work longer shifts or are engaged in heavy work such as agricultural work or masonry.
As a result of the pandemic, caregivers and children face ongoing, changing and increased worries and uncertainties that affect their mental health and wellbeing. Some children mentioned their sense of frustration, and sadness for not being able to go out and work to support their families. All they hear on the media is information about the pandemic, which has increased their fear and uncertainty about their future. A few children and caregivers reported increased risks of violence in families, particularly quarrels between family members. Yet despite the multiple stresses brought about by the pandemic, strengthened communication and improved relationships between children and their caregivers became a protective factor. Many of the working children consulted emphasised improved communication between children and parents, as they got to spend more quality time together that under normal circumstances was not possible due to work and other responsibilities.
These complexities on the impact of COVID-19 on working children and their families reveal the importance of developing an inclusive response to the crisis that takes into consideration diverse perspectives on children’s work and children’s indivisible rights to survival, protection, development and participation. It is important to support families, to understand roles and relationships within families, ensuring protection of girls and boys from exploitation and hazardous work, while also acknowledging the structural causes that prevent children and their families from accessing dignified work, food security, access to quality education and other basic services. Increased platforms are needed for working children and their caregivers to share their views, to dialogue with policy makers to influence decision-making processes, practices and policies to increase their opportunities to survive and thrive.