06/13/2022, 12.41
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Child labour, Colombo's hidden scourge

by Melani Manel Perera

Official statistics claim that only 1% of minors between 5 and 17 years of age are involved in economic activities. But civil society tells a very different story, with today's pandemic and financial crisis making even more serious. Buddhini Withana (Save the Children): "Stop criminalising families, they need social protection measures".

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The International Day against Child Labour celebrated on 12 June was an opportunity to highlight the scourge, which Pope Francis appealled strongly against during the Sunday Angelus prayer. In South Asia is the case of Sri Lanka is worrying, where child labour is a largely hidden phenomenon.

Official figures say that just 1% of children between 5 and 17 years of age are engaged in work, 90% of them in hazardous forms. But it is a picture that vastly underestimates the contribution of children to economic activities. "Due to differences in international and national legal definitions of child labour," comments Buddhini Withana, child protection and child rights advisor at Save the Children, "a significant number of Sri Lankan children - particularly those working less than 25 hours a week and those suffering from some of the worst forms of child labour (such as forced labour and sexual exploitation) - are excluded from the statistics and therefore invisible.

"There have not been many attempts to understand this phenomenon in Sri Lanka," the activist continues, "but research carried out by civil society organisations in early 2022 indicates how children have been pushed into work, sometimes at huge risks to their health and safety, due to economic vulnerabilities resulting from Covid-19, along with school closures and disruptions in education, with some children starting full-time work as early as the age of 11.

This picture is further aggravated by the deep economic and financial crisis that has hit the country in recent months. 'An increase in poverty,' Buddhini Withana continues, 'will mean more children dropping out of school and starting work much earlier than they should. And those families who already had to send their children to work to make ends meet during the pandemic, the hope of getting their children back to school may remain just a hope'.

All this despite the fact that the country has on paper very strict laws and policies against child labour. 'Zero tolerance alone is not enough,' explains the child rights expert. 'It is increasingly clear that, in the current context, most children start working mainly to survive. What effect can criminalisation have?".

Rather, social protection strategies are needed in today's Sri Lanka: 'The shortcomings of the samurdhi programme, the main local social protection mechanism, are widely recognised,' Buddhini Withana comments, 'with many criticisms of the discriminatory socio-political factors that determine the disbursement of benefits. Moreover, in the current situation, the state is unable to honour many of its financial commitments; it is extremely unlikely that social protection measures will become a priority in the near future'. Hence the urgency of another path: 'Strengthen families,' the activist concludes, 'and build their resilience through an integrated approach of food security-focused financial support and psychosocial support that addresses their vulnerabilities, risks and protection concerns. Only in this way can we ensure the well-being of children and their right to protection from all forms of exploitation'.

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