Nairobi — Regina Njagi's four children, aged between 11 and 17, have not benefitted from online learning since the COVID-19 led to the closure of all schools in Kenya, earlier in March. With the closure, Njagi lost her job as a teacher at a local private school.
"As a widow, these are desperate times for me. I exhausted my savings by paying school fees for my two children in high school, just three weeks before the closure. How many times can I borrow food from relatives and neighbours? Everyone I know is struggling so the children must work. Otherwise, they will starve," Njagi tells IPS.
Njagi is not alone in having to send her children to work for the families' survival. The impact of the pandemic on children will be a focus of Nobel Peace Laureates and Leaders for Children at a Fair Share for Children Summit on Sept. 9 and 10. Several Nobel laureates and heads states and directors of United Nations agencies are listed as speakers, including Nobel laureates the Dalai Lama, Professor Muhammad Yunus, Dr. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, among others.
To globalise compassion and galvanise action for the world's most vulnerable children, the Laureates and Leaders for Children founded in 2016 by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, state that if the world gave the most marginalised children and their families their fair share, which translates to 20 percent of the COVID-19 response for the poorest 20 percent of humanity, the results would be transformative.
The Nobel laureates fear that despite pledges of unprecedented sums of money to support world economies, this may not reach children.
"As a result, COVID-19 could turn the clock back a decade or more on progress made on child labour, education, and health for hundreds of millions of children," the Laureates say in a joint statement.
Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, has personally rescued tens of thousands of children from slavery and will be one of the speakers at the Fair Share for Children Summit.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and concerns escalate that even more children have been placed in harm's way, the Laureates and Leaders for Children is calling upon the world's heads of government to demonstrate wise leadership and urgently care for the impoverished and the marginalised with a special focus on children.
"One trillion dollars would fund all outstanding United Nations and charity COVID-19 appeals, cancel two years of all debt repayments from low-income countries, and fund two years of the global gap to meet the SDGs on health, water and sanitation, and education," Laureates and Leaders for Children says.
Education is a particularly vital step as quality education is the most powerful way to "end exclusion and change the future for marginalised children. There would still be enough left to fund social protection safety nets which are crucial in the fight against child labour. More than 10 million lives would be saved, a positive response by humanity to the tragedy of COVID-19," Laureates and Leaders for Children says.
No school but work during the pandemic
But from May to July this year, all four of Njagi's children were unable to attend school as they were employed on a daily wage to pick coffee at plantations in the Mbo-i-Kamiti area, Kiambu County, Central Kenya.
The children are currently engaged in this year's second coffee picking season which has just begun and will last through October. Njagi says her children will then participate in the final and major coffee picking season from October through December.
Picking coffee is a difficult job, and her children must leave for the plantation, some two kilometres away from their home in Kagongo village, by six o'clock in the morning.
After harvesting the coffee, each worker, child or adult, is expected to load their harvest onto waiting trucks which transport the day's pickings to the local coffee factory.
All workers must do everything possible to get onto the truck with their coffee or else they will walk to the factory, at least a kilometre away.
"At the factory, each person places their coffee on a weighing scale, and each worker is paid their daily wage based on the weight. I advised my children to combine their harvest because if the weight is too low, they might not get paid," she adds.
Children across the world at risk
The World Bank estimates that globally the pandemic will push 40 to 60 million people into extreme poverty in 2020.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), together with UNICEF, warns that a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 percent increase in child labour in certain countries.
Child rights experts, such as Nairobi-based Juliah Omondi, are increasingly concerned that Njagi's household is far from the exception. For millions of households across Africa, child labour is now a lifeline, and vulnerable children must adapt or starve.
Omondi is a member of the G10 (groups of 10 civil society organisations) local movement that agitates for the rights of women and children. She tells IPS that in "many African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Eritrea and Nigeria, international labour standards on the minimum age protection are ignored in the informal sector".
In Nigeria, for instance, the National Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2019, 50.8 percent of Nigeria's children were working full time. Omondi adds that the situation is dire in Africa's poorest countries, including Mali, Niger, Somalia and South Sudan.
COVID-19 likely to exacerbate the abuse and exploitation of children
Danson Mwangangi, a regional socio-economic expert and independent consultant based in Kigali, Rwanda, says that the pandemic has provoked economic severe and labour market shocks and that children are bearing the brunt.
While the number of working children has fallen by 94 million since the 2000s, the plight of Njagi's children confirms fears by the ILO that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the abuse and exploitation of children and roll back progress towards the eradication of child labour.
"Ongoing crisis will make it exceptionally difficult for the United Nations to realise its commitment to end child labour in the next five years. For the first time in 20 years, we are going to see a spike in the number of child labourers," Mwangangi warns.
The impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children clearly visible
ILO pre-pandemic statistics indicate that approximately 152 million children between the ages of five and 17, or one in 10 children, worldwide work. Of these, 73 million are in hazardous work. Nearly half of all children in labour are from the African continent and are aged between five and 11 years.
According to ILO, 85 percent of child labourers in Africa are in the agriculture sector; another 11 percent are in the services sector, with the remaining four percent in industry.
"We are beginning to see the fallout. More child marriages, more girls being employed as domestic workers and, unfortunately, domestic work for children in Africa has been normalised," Omondi says.
Mwangangi agrees. He says that while statistics by child agencies, like the U.N. Children's Fund, show that one in five children in Africa is in child labour, there is a general understanding that this does not include underage domestic workers such as house girls and farm boys.
Unfortunately, child labour is not the only problem facing marginalised and vulnerable children in Africa. When Save the Children released a report in July entitled "Little Invisible Slaves", it became apparent that COVID-19 has created more children vulnerable to trafficking and revealed that the world lacks much-needed child protection infrastructure.
The report says that COVID-19 "changed the pattern of sexual exploitation, which is now operating less on the streets and more indoors or online".
Omondi speaks of fears that millions of children are trapped in houses with their abusers and that it has becoming that much more difficult to reach them.
Save the Children estimates that of the 108,000 cases of human trafficking reported in 164 countries in 2019, at least 23 percent involved children.
Worse still, one in 20 child victims of sexual exploitation worldwide is under eight years old. Overall, Africa accounts for eight percent of child sex trafficking in the world.
According to the United States Department of State, 19 percent of world's enslaved population is trafficked in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the same breath, nearly half of all countries in Africa including Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Lesotho, Tunisia, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana have been flagged as notable sources, transit points and destination for people subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour.
In Kenya, for instance, one of six such victims are children, this is according to the Trafficking Data Collaborative, a data hub on human trafficking.
Meanwhile, Laureates and Leaders for Children caution that the inequalities the world's children face, combined with the "impact of COVID-19 will reverberate for years to come". But, they say, "none will feel it as painfully as the world's most marginalised children".