In just a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has already had drastic consequences for children across Djibouti. Their access to education, food, and health services has been dramatically affected all over the country. The impact has been so marked, that the UN Secretary General has urged governments and donors to offset the immediate effects of the COVID-19 crisis on children.
In discussions of the pandemic to date, child labour (i.e. forms of work that are harmful to children) has played only a marginal role. Yet, as I describe in this blog, child labour will be an important coping mechanism for poor households experiencing COVID-related shocks. As poverty rises, so too will the prevalence of child labour and violence . Increased parental mortality due to COVID-19 will force children into child labour, including the worst forms such as work that harms the health and safety of children.
The temporary school closures have a permanent implication for the poorest and most vulnerable children in Djibouti. Limited budgets and reductions in services for families and children have compounded the effects of the health, economic, and social crisis. It is evident that children who enter child labour are unlikely to stop working if their economic situation improves. Instead, they will continue to experience the implications of child labour—like less education overall and worse employment opportunities—when they are adults and start families of their own.
It is also known that the younger the children are when they start working, the more likely they will experience chronic health issues as adults. Moreover there is ample evidence that stress and trauma in adolescence lead to a lifetime of mental health challenges.
There is ample reason to be concerned that the temporary disruption of schooling will have permanent effects especially for the poorest in most affected regions in Djibouti. Normally, when children stop going to school and start earning an independent income, it is extremely difficult to get them to go back to school. The recent survey of 2018 carried out by UNICEF Djibouti, found out that even temporary school closures can result in permanently lower schooling and reduced labour earnings into adulthood as children who leave school early enter low-skill occupations.
Funding for other publicly provided goods—like health, education, and active labour market policies, and enforcement of labour market regulations—is likely to decline post-COVID-19. Each of these could have implications for child labour and putting more children at risk. Reductions in school fees, for example, have played a role in encouraging schooling, and the impact of negative economic shocks on child labour was muted in areas where schooling was more affordable. If school fees increase or school quality deteriorates post-COVID-19, a further increase in child labour seems likely.
In a nutshell policy responses that risk exacerbating the looming increase in child labour, such as public works programmes, should be considered carefully. Particular attention should be paid to the period shortly after lockdowns when schools reopen. This will be a critical window to prevent children entering paid work and community-level action is needed to ensure that every child returns to school. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who lose a parent deserve special consideration and support from the Djiboutian government the same way they support widows and the elderly.
Wassila is an avid application developer who is passionate about the promotion and safeguarding of children’s rights. She spends most of her time working with children from other vulnerable communities when she is on school holidays