Addressing child labour, climate change issues in Bangladesh
According to the findings of the National Child Labour Survey 2022, the number of children engaged in child labour in Bangladesh increased by 4.5 per cent in the last decade to 1.77 million from 1.69 million in 2013. This signals the need for urgent and effective action to improve livelihood in climate vulnerable regions where children are engaged in hazardous work.
Twelve-year-old Aaliyah lives with her family on the Baleshwari River Delta in coastal Bangladesh. On any given day, she hauls a fishing net twice her size down to the riverbank to catch shrimp fry. She skips her school for days to catch the fry at the high tide of the river, especially during the peak season from March to June. Her father and older brother migrated from their home district Khulna to Keraniganj, about 200 kilometres away to find work in the garment sweatshops after the floods eroded the little land they owned.
Aliyah now lives with her mother in a shanty, with no access to water, electricity and works as a shrimp fry catcher to make ends meet for less than a dollar a day.
Approximately six million farmers and hunters/divers are engaged in the shrimp sector in Bangladesh, including children at the absolute bottom of the supply chain. Children like Aaliyah spend at least 4-5 hours a day in saline water and contract illnesses and syndromes including skin allergies, gastric and muscular pain, eyesight problems, and menstrual health issues.
All these are intensely debilitating and especially health-threatening impacts for growing children. Medicines the family could buy to treat such conditions are too expensive.
Aaliyah is embedded in one of the most complex supply chains causing harm to children's well-being but also the environment. The collection of shrimp fries causes enormous damage to marine resources and the aquatic biodiversity of the harvesting areas. In the process of collecting one shrimp fry, around seventy to eighty other fish fry species are also killed.
The southwestern coastal belt of Bangladesh has long suffered from saline intrusion and waterlogging of arable land which leaves a growing number of farmers unemployed. The worsening climate change is further exacerbating the local environmental problem with increasing droughts, floods, soil salinity, and rising sea levels. The confluence of all these elements leaves communities along the Baleshwari and other coastal regions of Bangladesh in a precarious position.
Additionally, lack of knowledge and resources around saline land cultivation eliminates the last opportunity to grow food for self-sufficiency. As a result, marginal households including children, turn to hazardous shrimp fry collection, further magnifying the child labour crisis in climate vulnerable areas - forcing desperate choices for survival.
According to UNICEF Bangladesh Child Protection Specialist Kristina Westland, climate change is one reason why an estimated 3.45 million Bangladeshi children are involved in child labour. More than 19 million children in Bangladesh, from 20 of the country's 64 districts, are most vulnerable to the disastrous consequences of climate change, warned UNICEF in a 2019 report.
Worsening conditions drive vulnerable communities, including children, to migrate.
In families like Aaliyah's, the risk of child labour increases jeopardizing her right for safe, secure childhood and access to decent education.
However, integrating climate responsive solutions in child labour interventions have the potential to address the multi-dimensional issues of child labour.
In the case of Bangladesh, a Child Friendly Upazila can learn a lot from the Child Labour Free Zones (CLFZs) based on the Area-Based Approach (ABA), which focuses on vulnerable regions and sectors with significant cases of child labour and works towards making the area child labour free. The ABA led models such as CLFZs are increasingly focusing on addressing the economic root causes of child labour along with other issues such as school feeding and social protection.
This approach is being promoted by Global March Against Child Labour, a worldwide network of trade unions, community-based organisations and teachers' unions, in partnership with Cordaid, an organisation with technical expertise in promoting innovative livelihood solutions in fragile regions. They're joining forces to implement saline farming targeting smallholder shrimp farmers in the Khulna region to build their capacity in saline agriculture. By learning to grow salt-tolerant crops on land that has been damaged by saltwater, farmers are able to make their fallow, saline soil fertile again, grow sufficient food for the community, and generate income.
From 2021-22, among the forty household beneficiaries in this pilot project, the average family income (earlier around 5,000 Bangladesh Taka - $47 per month) increased up to BDT 7,050 ($66) from selling vegetables grown through saline farming. In addition, each farmer family on average consumed 180 kg of vegetables that cost BDT 5,400. Each family also shared some vegetables with their close relatives. The improved income had a direct impact on the reduction in school dropouts and children's attendance in school from these households. The dropout rate reduced from 14.3% to 2.3% and irregularity in school reduced from 53.6% to 3.6%. At the same time, the attendance rate among these children increased remarkably from 32% to 94%.
Livelihood alternatives like saline farming combined with an ABA promote innovative solutions that are responsive to emerging climate threats and therefore make it possible for children to escape the dangerous work of shrimp fry collection and be in school.
The organisations plan to expand the work in the next three years to benefit at least 1,800 households and 3,000 children in the Khulna region with a focus on the most vulnerable shrimp fry-catching communities and their children engaged in worst forms of child labour.
The technical tools are critical but the real heart of sustainability in addressing child labour is the Area-Based Approach (ABA) and strengthening it with innovative livelihood solutions. By focusing on vulnerable regions and bringing marginalized communities together to increase their bargaining power, building local collaboration, and sharing knowledge, it is possible to tackle the root causes of child labour.
Bangladesh can benefit immensely from a child friendly Upazilas that envisions building a unique, cross-cutting solution-oriented approach that builds community resilience and integrates child labour concerns with climate and livelihood issues in Bangladesh. It ensures holistic collaboration among CSOs (Civil Society Organizations), the government, the private sector, unions, and donors and amplifies efforts to combat child labour.
Gazal Malik is a Program and Advocacy Manager and Global Supply Chains Specialist, and Timothy Ryan is the Chairperson at Global March Against Child Labour