Thousands of Nepali children are subjected to forced labor with parents out of work due to lockdown

Photo : UNICEF

Rojina Rai

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Namita (name changed) performs a different morning ritual than many other children in Kathmandu.

As soon as the dawn breaks, she goes about rummaging through mounds of trash, looking for plastic and other waste that she can sell. Namita, who is 10, used to go to school before the pandemic struck. She has pressing problems to attend to now and they are not about algebra or arithmetic.

“I’m now responsible to feed my family,” she says. She has to assist her family to pay rent due for three months, she adds. Namita lives in a rented room in Boudha with her family of five. Her father, who is a daily-wage earner, has been out of work since the lockdown. He often drinks and beats her mother, Namita says. For her, prospects of returning back to study anytime soon are thin.

Namita’s case is not unique. Since the pandemic started, thousands of children of school-going age across Nepal are forced to leave school and work to sustain their family. The pandemic will almost certainly reverse the progress made towards ending child labor in Nepal, as UN agencies such as ILO and UNICEF have warned.

Before the pandemic, Nepal had witnessed a decline in trend of overall child labor, from 1.6million children in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2018, according to Nepal Child Labor Report 2021.

“This important progress made is now challenged by the socioeconomic realities of the Covid-19 pandemic,” ILO and UNICEF jointly stated in their report.

Activists also decry the government’s indifference to children’s rights during the pandemic.

UNICEF Representative in Nepal Elke Wisch has said that the severe socio-economic impact of the pandemic has hit families with children particularly hard.

“Increased economic hardship combined with school closures place children already in child labor at increased risk of working longer hours or under worsening conditions,” said Wisch, “While many more may be forced into the worst form of child labor due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.”

Human Rights Watch’s recent report also said the second wave of Covid -19 cases in Nepal puts children at greater risk of child labor in the wake of new lockdown.

According to a survey conducted by Consortium Nepal before the second wave of the pandemic, 36 percent of children in Nepal were subjected to household work. The numbers are likely to have increased since and will continue to, say child rights activists.

“For a developing country like Nepal, where only a limited number of children have access to digital education, school dropout and increasing child labor have emerged as a huge problem,” Bishnu Bahadur Khatri, a child rights expert and researcher, said. “The worst may be yet to come. Many industries and enterprises are shut down for a long period now and bear huge losses. They will seek to employ children on low wages to overcome this economic downturn.”

Activists also decry the government’s indifference to children’s rights during the pandemic.

“Many children belonging to daily-wage earning families are compelled to work at risky conditions to provide financial support to their families,” Shanti Adhikari, founder of Children and Women in Social Service and Human Rights (CWISH), an NGO working for child rights, said. “A large number of children are vulnerable, physically and psychologically. And the government has failed to address this worrying situation. In fact, notions of child rights and their voices are never addressed by the government. Not even in this crisis.”

The year 2021 was marked as a year for the elimination of child labor but it seems challeging now, said Krishna Subedi, chairperson of Child Nepal. “We can’t say when this pandemic will end since we may still witness new waves of the pandemic,” Subedi said. “Eliminating child labor and ensuring child rights have now become a global challenge.”

Meanwhile, for Namita, it’s an everyday challenge to manage any amount of money she could. “Visiting Boudha Stupa and begging for money from people is my daily routine,” she says, adding that she is often verbally abused at the hands of strangers.

On good days, Namita manages a hundred or two from either selling trash or begging but not always. “There are many days and nights that we have spent without food,” she said.