One day, “Evelyn” touched a jack fruit on the farm where she works on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda. Her boss took 20,000 shillings (US$5.60) from her pay as punishment. She only makes 7,000 shillings ($1.90) a day.
Evelyn, who is 15, works 11 hours a day on the farm, drying silver fish (sardines), carrying rocks, and using a sharp tool for “slashing” — which is clearing fields of thorny plants.
“We are not allowed to rest,” she told Human Rights Watch researchers. “Even if [the manager] just calls you and you walk slowly, he gives you a yellow card, meaning you have worked for nothing that day.” Since the pandemic began, Evelyn – who dreams of becoming a nurse – has been working 7a.m. until 6p.m., without a break, seven days a week. She regularly comes home with cuts all over her legs from the “slashing”.
Evelyn’s father is a fisherman, but when the boats were banned from going out to fish during the lockdown, he lost his income. Her mother sells the fish her father brings home, so both sources of money were lost. Schools in Uganda were also shut down, and Evelyn, as the oldest of five children, decided to go out to work.
“I started to work to relieve my parents of some responsibilities. I also did not want to stay at home doing nothing,” she said.
In Uganda, schools are supposed to be free, but many charge fees that poor families can’t afford. Even before the pandemic, Evelyn was sometimes sent home when her parents couldn’t pay. To return to school, Evelyn would need to pay a month’s wages for each term – a huge challenge as her family struggles to survive. Evelyn thinks the government should pay for education for her younger siblings because her parents would struggle to send them. Evelyn is not alone in this fear: Many of the children from Uganda interviewed for the report said school fees and lack of financial help from the government meant returning to school was too expensive.
But the teenager would much rather return to school than continue working. At work, she says, “There is no peace. There is harassment, beatings, and reduced pay.”
“I want to make my mother happy. I do not want to be like other children who failed to complete school.”
Like many children from poor households, 14-year-old “Gita” couldn’t take the online classes offered by her school. Her family was struggling financially, and she felt she needed to work instead. She joined her mother in a carpet weaving factory – working from 4a.m. until 10p.m. with only a one-hour break. Before the pandemic, she said she used to help her mother from time to time, but during the lockdown, her mother lost income because there were fewer orders to go around. "I couldn't just sit back and watch my mother,” said Gita. “I had to step up.”
Weaving carpets is hard work. Gita’s fingers and hands always hurt knotting the threads on the loom and she has eye strain from looking at intricate carpet designs for hours on end.
“We have to look at the map a lot because that’s where the design is, and it hurts our eyes. And I sit down for hours so it really hurts my legs,” she said.
Nepal’s minimum wage is 13,450 rupees per month (US$115.60), but for her 18-hour days Gita made about 4,000-5,000 a month, which was given straight to her mother. Nepal has provided little assistance to families affected by the pandemic, so families like Gita’s are left to fend for themselves.
Gita went back to school when it re-opened, but with two younger siblings and a father who cannot work due a disability, she still works about 13 hours a day. She does a shift at the loom from 4a.m. until 9a.m. before school and then from 2p.m. until 10 at night. She sits by her mother helping with bigger pieces, or weaving small carpets by herself.
The owner of the carpet factory pays the family based on how much they produce – so the more pieces Gita can weave, the more money they bring home. As it happens, home is the very factory Gita works in, and even though the owner is nice to them, it is hard for Gita to live there. “The factory is dirty. The families that live there have a lot of children and the toilets are dirty,” she said.
Gita wants to continue her studies and says the government should help her family with food and money to run their household. When asked about her hopes for the future she, understandably, said she just didn’t want to weave carpets: “I want to do something else.”
Sometimes, “Kofi” doesn’t even get paid for his work. At the start of the pandemic, the 11-year-old saw his mother struggling to look after his four siblings and decided to go out to work. His father had left the family when Kofi was only five, and his mother, a bread seller, made very little money during the lockdowns. She initially objected to Kofi looking for work, not wanting that pressure on her young son, but with few other options she finally relented.
Kofi, who wants to be a head teacher when he grows up, was in school when the pandemic started, but they were ordered shut down to slow the spread of Covid-19. His friends told him about the money they made carrying goods for people from the market.
Ghana is behind countries like Mali or Kenya when it comes to giving financial aid to families in need, and this lack of help is forcing children like Kofi to work.
“I carry maize, cassava – dough, charcoal, groundnut, fish, drinks, bags, basket of fried fish. I sometimes assist tricycle operators to carry loads,” Kofi said. He carries these loads – which can weigh up to 20kg – on trust, with customers promising payment at the end of the trip.
“Some clients treat me nice, but others do not,” he said, adding that some people leave without paying at all. Kofi said a “good” day was earning 12 cedis ($2) for eight hours work and described neck and back pains from carrying so much.
Even with schools reopening, Kofi hasn’t stopped working because in Ghana, even though public schools are free, he needs about 700 cedis ($121) a term to buy books, food, and cover other expenses. He works for five hours in the afternoon after classes, and 11-and-a-half hours during market days over the weekends. His family did not receive any help from the government during the pandemic, and he wants to help his mother and siblings beyond all else.
Over the twenty years before the pandemic, governments around the world reduced global child labor rates by nearly 40 percent. One of the keys to this success was providing cash allowances to ease the financial strain on families so children did not have to choose between their education and working to survive.
The pandemic has shown how critical this support can be for struggling families. Yet 1.3 billion children – mostly in Africa and Asia – have no access to cash allowances. Children like Kofi, Gita, and Evelyn would be able to go back to school and secure their futures – if their governments step up and expand the help they give to families living in the worst poverty.