“I Must Work to Eat”: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda

“I Must Work to Eat”: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda

“I Must Work to Eat”: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda


Before the Covid-19 pandemic, countries around the globe had made remarkable progress in reducing child labor. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of children in child labor decreased by approximately 94 million between 2000 and 2016, representing a drop of 38 percent. But as the pandemic caused massive school closures and unprecedented loss of jobs and income for millions of families, many children have entered the workforce to help their families survive, while others have been forced to work longer hours or enter more precarious and exploitative situations. Some have become their families’ primary breadwinners after losing a caregiver to Covid-19. Some despair of ever going back to school.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on children’s rights, including their right to an adequate standard of living, their right to education, and protection from child labor. A rise in child labor is not an inevitable consequence of the pandemic, however. Policy measures that provide economic relief to families, such as cash transfers and child allowances, contributed significantly to the dramatic decrease in child labor since the early 2000’s. Used strategically, they can also help ensure the millions of families that experienced economic distress due to the pandemic enjoy an adequate standard of living and keep children out of dangerous and exploitative work.

This report examines the rise in child labor and poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic in three countries: Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda, the impact on children’s rights, and government responses. Each of the three countries has made significant progress reducing poverty and child labor in recent decades. Each has also made an explicit commitment as a “pathfinder” country to accelerate efforts to eradicate child labor in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted by United Nations member states in 2015, these goals call for taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking, and ending child labor by 2025.

Despite their commitments to accelerate progress in ending child labor, however, Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda have lagged behind many of their regional peers in using cash allowances to address the Covid-19 crisis, spending less than their peers and covering a smaller proportion of households with children.

For this report, researchers interviewed 81 children (48 boys and 33 girls) between the ages of 8 and 17 in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda. The children were mainly from low-income households. The vast majority said that their family income had been negatively impacted by the pandemic and lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Their parents lost jobs when businesses shut down, lost access to markets due to transportation restrictions, or lost customers due to economic slowdowns. For example, 13-year-old Maimun said his parents were farmers, and that during Nepal’s lockdown, “We couldn’t sell our vegetables. We had to throw away the tomatoes and cauliflower because there was nowhere to sell them.”

Many families have struggled to meet their basic needs, and some of the children described acute hunger. Fourteen-year-old Angelina from Uganda, said “There was no money to buy food, sugar, salt, and water. There were days when we could not get food. We survived on drinking water.” When governments ordered schools to shut down to limit the spread of Covid-19, some children also lost access to the meals their schools previously provided.

Despite the economic hardships they faced, only 28 of the 81 children interviewed said that their families received any government assistance during the pandemic, primarily in the form of food aid. None had any knowledge of their family receiving cash assistance, although researchers were not able to confirm this with the children’s parents or guardians.

Some children interviewed were already working before the pandemic began, but many entered the workforce for the first time to support their families. Some said that their families no longer had enough food to eat, and that hunger drove their decision to work. Thirteen-year-old Florence in Uganda said that before she went to work, her family survived on tea and porridge. “I started working because we were so badly off. The hunger at home was too much for us to sit and wait.” Fourteen-year-old Patience, from Ghana, said her parents’ fishing business lost customers during the lockdown, and that once schools shut down, she and her eight siblings no longer had access to free school meals. She felt that she had no choice but to go to work. “If I don’t do it, life will be tough for all of us,” she said.

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