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Child labour on the rise in quake-hit north

Muhsin Iqbal, 10, lost his father in the October 2005 quake in northern Pakistan and has since dropped out of school. Today he scavenges for cardboard and empty bottles on the streets of Abbotabad.
(David Swanson/IRIN)

At first glance, it is hard to believe Muhsin, 10, once went to school regularly and had dreams of being a pilot. Rummaging through the trash in the town of Abbotabad in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, he now scavenges the ground for cardboard, empty bottles and metal scrap that he sells to make less than US$1 a day.

“I had to drop out of school,” he told IRIN, wiping his soiled face on his sleeve as he took a break. “But what else could I do? After the earthquake I had to help my family.”

Muhsin’s father died after their rented house in the nearby town of Balokot, the quake’s epicentre, collapsed around them, leaving him and his two brothers no choice but to move to Abbotabad with their mother to find work.

“I want to return to school, but I can’t,” said Muhsin. “It’s simply not possible.”

There are thousands of children like Muhsin across quake-affected northern Pakistan who have been forced out of the classroom and into the labour market to support their families in the aftermath of the October 2005 earthquake.

More on child labour in quake-hit areas
 Young quake survivors turning to child labour
 Child beggars line roadsides
 Child labour still widespread in NWFP
 Aftershock: Rebuilding after the Asian earthquake

Over 73,000 lives were lost and more than 3.5 million rendered homeless in what has been described as the worst disaster ever to strike the South Asian nation.

Many of the children come from the poorest of the poor, leaving them no other option but to migrate to the larger cities and towns in the area to seek employment - many without their families.

“All of a sudden there were more and more children and their families coming to larger cities to find work,” Violet Speek-Warnery, a child protection specialist with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said.

3.3 million children at work

More than two and half years on, Pakistani authorities have expressed concern over a rise in child labour - already a serious problem throughout Pakistan - in the quake-affected area.

A Child Labour Survey conducted by the Federal Bureau of Statistics in 1996, the most recent available official statistics on the issue, shows that 3.3 million children under the age of 14 were working. Aid workers say that figure is likely to much higher now.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Many children have no choice but to work to support their families

In towns such as Abbotabad, children can be seen sleeping in the open air, something unheard of before 2005. This has prompted the government to set up a school specifically for children working in the area.

“Before the earthquake, the ratio of children involved in child labour was around five percent. Today it’s more than 15 percent,” Faiz Ullah, assistant director of the Abbotabad labour department, said, estimating that some 10,000 children in the quake-affected area were working to support their families

According to non-governmental organisation (NGO) Save the Children Sweden, the figure is much higher despite there being a lack of verifiable and quantifiable data.

“To me the number would be significantly more. Ten thousand is a very low number,” Ghulum Qadri, programme manager for the NGO in Pakistan, said.

According to data the NGO collected at the end of last year and is still analysing from some 5,000 children in the quake-affected districts of Battagram, Abbotabad and Mansehra, prior to the quake approximately 20 percent of children worked. Today, some 35 percent of children in these areas work.

UNICEF steps in

Working closely with local authorities and the Jobs Creating Development Society (JCDS), a local NGO in Abbotabad, UNICEF has established two child protection centres in the city where some 500 children were found to be working.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Since the quake, there has been a marked increase in child labour in the area

In these centres, children are offered non-formal education as a way of reintegrating them into government schools, explained UNICEF child protection officer Agnes Mutenyo Karani.

Additionally, workers at the centre have the opportunity to meet with local employers in an effort to raise awareness of children’s rights so that child labour can be avoided.

Most of the participants are boys, but a large number of girls are also present, many working as domestic servants in the quake-affected area, according to Speek-Warnery.

To attend, children must get permission from their parents and employers. Then, classes are fast-tracked or back-tracked according to the child’s individual needs, Speek-Warnery said.

“Some children have attended school formally before, while others haven’t at all. We need to integrate our curriculum accordingly,” Akbar Ali, a child protection monitor for JCDS, added.

Results promising

Of the 119 children who have attended to date, 43 have been successfully re-united with their families through family counselling and with livelihood support they are now back to school. For the remaining 76, individual plans for reintegration are being followed up.

“I’m happy to be back,” smiled eight-year-old Hameed-ullah who had dropped out of school in Muzaffarabad after the quake and until recently had been scavenging on the streets of Abbotabad with his older brother.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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