July 19, also known as “Freedom Day” – saw the remaining coronavirus restrictions eased across the UK. Here in Uganda, the First lady who doubles as the Minister of Education released Primary Leaving Exam results but did not tell us when the “new” Senior One students will start their secondary school journey. This is the only country where we have two sets of S1 students. Others started at the beginning of the year even before Senior One results were released, while the second set waited for results to be released. My daughter was asking me about the other batch of Senior one students who began in March 2021. Clearly, I did not have answers to her questions so I reminded her of the food she was cooking.
Unlike my daughter who helps around the home by cooking some family meals and washing dishes during lockdown, many other children are caught up in much more taxing work. The economic impact of the lockdown coupled with school closures and inadequate or nonexistent government assistance is pushing children into exploitative and dangerous child labour. This makes the rise in child labour an inevitable consequence of the pandemic.
A 69-page report, “‘I Must Work to Eat’: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda” examines the rise in child labour and poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic’s impact on children’s rights. In the report, children described working long, grueling hours for little pay after their parents lost jobs or income due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. Many described hazardous working conditions, and some reported violence, harassment, and pay theft.
The vast majority of children interviewed for the report said that the pandemic and associated lockdowns had a negative effect on their families. Many entered the workforce for the first time to support their families. Some said they decided to work because their families did not have enough food.
Some of the work that children are doing is clearly hazardous. At stone quarries, children reported injuries from flying stones, including sharp particles that got into their eyes. Children showed researchers cuts from the “slashers” they used to clear fields or the sharp edges of sugarcane stalks.
In Uganda, nearly half of the children interviewed worked at least 10 hours a day, some seven days a week. Several children said they worked as much as 16 hours a day!
There’s a particularly hurting story I came across after schools closed in June . A boy had traveled from Manafwa District in Eastern Uganda on foot to earn a living at a maize mill in downtown Kampala! Most of these children earn less than Shs4,000 per day ($1.1) and sometimes, the employers refuse to pay them or pay less than was promised. Imagine a 12-year-old girl who earns only Shs5,000 ($1.39) a week crushing stones at a quarry said that her employer often paid her even less if he wasn’t satisfied with the size of the stones. Some children said their earnings did not always provide enough money for food. This is gross abuse of children rights and the world shouldn’t be quiet when injustices like these are taking place.
The most painful thing is that the government has not prioritized cash allowances to protect children’s rights and enable families to maintain an adequate standard of living without resorting to child labour. Last month, members of the Ugandan parliament receieved money for cars worth Shs200 million each yet the cash assistance promised to Ugandans has never reached some mobile phones. The money for MPs cars should have been cash allowances to families with children. This would have contributed to a significant decrease in child labour. Now that the money is already “eaten”, let the Ugandan government release all the promised cash assistance to families to prevent further increase in poverty and child labour. Mr President, this is not a request but a demand. Children must be protected from hard/child labour.
Reagan Van Keagan Mugabi is a human rights activist.