The year 2020 brought with it death and destruction like never seen before. COVID-19 affected the labour class in the worst possible manner. The lockdown announced by the Government meant that the migrant labour across the country was left stranded with no means to eke out a living. With landlords asking them to either pay rent or vacate, the only option left open for entire families, women and children, was to walk back home hundreds of km braving scorching sun, accidents and even preferring death over starvation
As vaccinations begin in one corner of the world, marking the beginning of recovery from the pandemic, we can’t forget that the majority is fighting increasing hunger, poverty and exploitation. This blatant and brazen inequality of the world we live has been exposed by the grossly unequal response of the world to the pandemic. Of the initial $8 trillion that has been released as global COVID-19 relief, only 0.13 per cent has been allocated to the poorest communities.
The rest has been used to bail out big businesses that have multiplied their profits in the midst of a global recession.The most grievous casualties of this injustice are our children.
We witnessed that the Government, in partnership with citizens, came forward to mitigate the immediate crisis of dry rations, medical aid and essential needs in the most affected communities at unprecedented scale, which is truly admirable.
I am proud of my children, the survivors of child labour and trafficking living in Bal Ashram, came forth to make masks for law enforcement, frontline workers and communities in Rajasthan. Several individuals and organisations stepped up at the time of crisis, risking their safety to provide life-saving relief and care.
But with extremely limited access to digital education, overnight loss of household income, and no food on the plate for millions of children, we have only barely touched the tip of the iceberg. While the pandemic did not create these inequalities, our response to it has exposed and exacerbated them to the extent that we risk losing an entire generation to child labour, trafficking, child marriage and other forms of exploitation. This will be an utter and complete breakdown of our moral, socio-economic, and democratic systems.
Now that we are looking towards recovery, it is important to understand that central to finding the solution is the understanding that the children who are forced to work are the same children who are denied education, and the same children who are undernourished and starving. We cannot leave our children to fend for themselves in this time of crisis.
The need of the hour is that our children receive their fair share — a fair share in policies, in budgets, and in protection. A fair share for children is based on fundamental principles of justice that our children deserve. In 2015, when the world came together and committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, they did so with the promise to ‘leave no child behind’.
But we are failing at this. The same communities that have been discriminated against for decades, including minorities, migrants, and farmers, are the same communities where children are denied education, nutrition and safety. They have historically and structurally been alienated from global wealth and development, and we will look back at this unprecedented period as the time when the vulnerable were pushed over the edge into unending cycles of disenfranchisement.
To be able to break this chain of intergenerational exploitation, Governments must make a tangible and radical shift to a culture of fair share for the most marginalised children and their families. That is the only way we can end child labour and exploitation, and build a world where our children learn and thrive.
The truest judge of how the world has responded to the pandemic, is the trafficked child who collapsed dead on the road because of as she walked a 100 km to reach her home, the child who was dropped out of school and was forcefully married because of lack of access to digital education, and the child labour who was trapped in factories as their employer deserted them during lockdown. Our children are the mirrors to the world we are building.
The year 2021 provides us with the opportunity to come together to commit a fair share for children in the global wealth allocation for their development and wellbeing. 2021 has been declared as the United Nations Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, with the objective to revitalise and accelerate the global promise to end child labour by 2025 under Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.
This was an ambitious target from the start, but the devastating effects of the pandemic that have brought the world to its knees and we are now facing the risk of the first ever increase in child labour in decades. We are at the precipice of losing the progress achieved over decades to reduce child labour and to ensure access to education for all children. This cannot be allowed to happen, and each one of us has a role to play including Governments, international agencies, businesses, faith leaders, media, schools and colleges and civil society.
Governments must realign their policies, politics, legislations and budgetary allocations and accountability measures towards creating a safety net for the most vulnerable communities through accessible and adequate social protection. International agencies must uphold and enforce multilateral efforts to bridge the wealth gap between nations, and set global benchmarks for child protection measures. Businesses must ensure transparency, due diligence and compliance to create child labour-free supply chains. Faith leaders must unite to prioritise children within their communities as a moral responsibility. The media must highlight and question the state of our children and hold all stakeholders accountable for the protection of our children’s rights. Schools, colleges and civil society, especially the survivors and youth, must lead from the front in demanding change and accountability, to give voice to the voiceless and forgotten children of the world.
This year has taught us many lessons that we have learnt, sometimes unwillingly.It has placed in front of our eyes the true and bare state of our world, to show us what we have long ignored or forgotten. We have recognised our inherent interconnectedness and interdependence with each other.
But most importantly, the year 2020 has proven that until each one of us is safe, nobody is safe. If the people of the world are moving in diametrically opposite directions of development, the world will be too stretched to sustain itself.
We can only truly move forward if we do it together. Whenever the world was in peril, the inherent goodness of humanity of individuals has shone forth and we have come our stronger. We have to reclaim our humanity and globalise compassion. And we must begin with our children, because they are all our children.
The writer is Nobel Peace Laureate and Founder of Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation