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EDITORIAL: Given the abject poverty too many in the country live in and the precarious economic situation Pakistan perennially finds itself in, it is little wonder then that child labour is a well-entrenched and long-running phenomenon, deeply rooted in the socioeconomic challenges faced by the nation. In this regard, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP’s) first-ever Child Labour Survey 2022-23 shines a much-needed spotlight on the issue, revealing some confounding statistics.

Out of a total population of 8.2 million children, around 922,314 can be categorised as working children, or around 11.1 percent of the province’s child population. Of these, those involved in child labour form a substantial 80 percent of the working children population, or 745,165 to be exact.

Most worryingly, within the child labour category, around 73.8 percent, or 465,853 children, work in hazardous conditions, which means that these children could find themselves in a variety of risky situations, working with unsafe tools, or for strenuous working hours and during night shifts, or in dangerous industries and occupations, or in abusive conditions.

Here it would be pertinent to distinguish between child work and child labour. While child work refers to work that does not adversely impact a child’s health, personal growth and educational opportunities, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes child labour as work that “deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and/or mental development” as well as interferes with their schooling.

The ubiquitous nature of the issue can be gauged from the fact that child labour in KP was found prevalent in a wide variety of sectors ranging from agriculture, forestry, fishing, water collection, trade and manufacturing. The primary driver of this menace remains debilitating poverty, as well as a lack of access to education opportunities.

Many families struggling to meet basic needs resort to sending their children to work to supplement household incomes or in cases where the household has lost a parent, children may also be the main wage-earners in the family. In such circumstances, the cycle of poverty perpetuates itself as children are denied the opportunity for education and a better future.

Further compounding the problem is the poor coverage of social safety nets like the Benazir Income Support Programme, where families facing financial hardships may not have access to social welfare funding, leading them to force their children into work. In addition, the lack of stringent regulations and enforcement mechanisms allows for the persistence of exploitative practices, with children being subjected to hazardous working conditions and meagre wages.

We need to recognise that merely passing legislations and ratifying international treaties pertaining to ending child labour are not enough. In order to combat this problem effectively, what is also required is enhancing the capacity, training and funding of law enforcement authorities and that of organisations dedicated to ending child labour so that laws targeting this menace can be effectively implemented.

In addition, establishing comprehensive social safety nets designed to provide financial and educational support to struggling families in a bid to ease their economic hardships can go a long way in eradicating child labour. A much sharper focus on improving access to education will remain essential if we want our future generations to break free from the cycle of poverty.

Furthermore, it is imperative that our cultural norms undergo a paradigm shift, and our society starts recognising child labour as the pressing social menace it is, which demands our concerted attention and collective action. The non-profit sector, civil society and government authorities need to play their respective roles in fostering a culture that prioritises the well-being and development of every child in the country.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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