Uganda strives to reverse child labor amid COVID-19 pandemic

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A girl carries corn husks on her head in Kampala, Uganda, on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Uganda's economy will probably expand at the slowest pace in more than three decades this year due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, a locust invasion and floods, the World Bank said. Photographer: Katumba Badru Sultan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A girl carries corn husks on her head in Kampala, Uganda, on Thursday, July 23, 2020.. Photographer: Katumba Badru Sultan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Almost at every busy junction in Kampala city now, there are groups of children aged between 10 and 16 vending face masks.

The children mostly target motorists, passengers and cyclists who could have either forgotten their masks at home or want to buy an additional one as the country continues to grapple with COVID-19.

On the outskirts of Kampala, children of similar ages are seen carrying fruits or fresh vegetables in plastic bags and baskets for sale. Others knock from gate to gate, hoping to get a customer.

Yvonne Laruni, a program officer at Raising Voices, a nonprofit organization working towards the prevention of violence against women and children, said stories of child labor amid the pandemic have become more familiar.

“While we are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, there is also a surge in cases of violence against children, which includes child labor,” Laruni says.

“This is evidenced by any city dweller. There has been an influx of children, either selling things or helping their parents serve customers,” she added.

According to Laruni, all this resulted from closures of schools. “Most parents feel like instead of leaving the children to remain idle and get spoilt, let us engage them in labor, trade. But at the end of the day, they have exposed the children to some really dangerous ventures,” she said.

Laruni explained that work in itself is not bad as long as it does not harm children’s development, health, dignity and education.

“When you get a child to hawk boiled maize from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., that is child labor. When you get a child to take care of a sick relative, that is child labor,” she said.

OTHER FORMS OF CHILD LABOR

Laruni also stressed that child labor in Uganda is not limited to city centers.

“We have always had cases of children working in stone quarries but the COVID-19 situation has made it worse. Stone quarrying itself is dangerous to mature people, how about the children?” she asks.

In addition, some children are taken to gardens to dig from morning to evening.

“We are also seeing people taking their children to become housemaids. After that child has tasted the sweetness of money, even when schools open, the children will not go back to classrooms,” Laruni says.

According to Laruni, commercial sex exploitation among children is not an exception as it has become rampant recently. It affects children in urban areas, especially in slums, she said.

“Girls are brought from villages, promised jobs and money, yet they are recruited into commercial sex. The customers to these girls are motor cycle taxi operators and petty traders who have been idle,” she added.

As Uganda joins the rest of the globe to celebrate the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, Laruni urges everyone to join the fight to ensure that statistics are reversed. The day this year is marked under the theme: Act Now To End Child Labor.

According to Aggrey Kibenge, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development here, child labor remains a major challenge to Uganda’s socio-economic transformation.

“According to the Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) 2016/2017, a total of about 2,048,000 children out of the 14,984,929 aged 5-17 years were engaged in some form of Child Labor, which constituted 14 percent of all children nationally,” Kibenge said in a statement earlier.

He said that the closure of schools and loss of incomes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic “have exacerbated the problem of Child Labor as many children have been forced to enter the workforce in order to help their families survive.”

Antonio Querido, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in Uganda, said the negative impacts of COVID-19 have driven up child labor figures.

“In Uganda, recent findings from the National Household Survey 2019/2020 report indicate that one in three (28 percent) children are in child labor,” he said.

The number of boys and girls in child labor has doubled from about 2,048,000 children, or 14 percent, out of the 14,984,929 aged 5-17 nationally since the last report, he noted.

Querido cited poverty and food insecurity in rural communities as a significant factor in pushing children into child labor.

WAY FORWARD

Kibenge said that, in addition to existing laws against child labor, new policies have been developed by the government to tame the same vice.

“This year the government also finalized the development of the National Action Plan (NAP) II 2020/2021-2024/2025 on elimination of Child Labor,” Kibenge said.

The plan creates a framework for the prevention, protection, rehabilitation and reduction of child labor, according to the permanent secretary.

He also called for parents and guardians to take advantage of the government’s universal primary and secondary education programs to ensure that children are kept in school instead of in child labor.

For Laruni, ending child labor is a collective responsibility for everyone. “We should not say as a community that this is not my child, so I don’t care. If you know a place where you suspect child labor to be taking place, please report to authorities,” Laruni said.

She also urged every parent to know that it is their sole responsibility to take care of their children.

She appealed to the government to adopt necessary measures against parents who push children into child labor.

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