Minimising lasting impact of child labour, the need of the hour | Sunday Observer
Children engaged in labour are almost six times more likely to develop mental health problems-Psychi

Minimising lasting impact of child labour, the need of the hour

27 June, 2021

The spike in child labour across the world including Sri Lanka despite several measures being put in place by the Government has raised concerns among health authorities. The Sunday Observer spoke to Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Colombo South Teaching Hospital, and Vice President of Sri Lanka Association of Child Development, Dr Yasodha Rohanachandra to tell readers how child labour can impact on the mental and physical health of such children.

Q. International Child Labour Day (June 12) was observed across the world. What was this year’s theme?

A. “Act now, end child labour”.

Q. The first ever joint ILO-UNICEF report on child labour estimates covering 70% of world population of children aged 5-17, points to a significant rise of such children engaged in hazardous work ( by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016.) Could you define hazardous work?

A. Hazardous work includes forms of work that requires children to work in dangerous or unhealthy working conditions, where there is a risk of the child being killed, sustaining injury or suffering psychological harm.

Q. Globally which hazardous sectors are children in this age group commonly used ?

A. The International Labour Organisation has reported that mining, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, hotels, bars, restaurants, markets and domestic service as types of hazardous labour engaged by children.

Q. What is the situation in Sri Lanka in comparison? Is it similar?

A. A decline in the percentage of child labour has been observed in Sri Lanka during the recent decades. According to the child activity survey 2016, 2.27% of the child population in Sri Lanka can be considered as working children.

This survey reported that 0.9% of the total child population are engaged in hazardous forms of labour and all children engaged in hazardous labour were older than 12 years. According to the ILO, this is a drastic decline from the rates observed in 1999.

Q. Considering that ours is still mainly an agrarian based country do you think there is more exploitation of children in agricultural activities? If so who are those most responsible for such exploitation?

A. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the highest percentage of working children are employed in the service sector, followed by agricultural sector, with the lowest percentage being employed in the industry sector. The type of industry the children was employed in was shown to be dependent on the age of the child, with the percentage of children engaged in industrial sector increasing with age. Majority of these children are reported to be engaged in elementary occupations, such as helpers. The majority of the working children work at their own family dwelling followed by shops, markets and boutiques.

Q. Is there a gender difference? Are more girls or boys at risk of being exposed to hazardous labour in Sri Lanka? If so, why?

A. Majority of the working children, as well as children engaged in hazardous labour are boys. According to the Child Activity Survey 2016, out of the estimated working children between 5-17 years, 66.7% were boys.

Q. What are the main underlying causes ?

A. Children from low-income households and poor living conditions are more prone to child labour. In addition, it is reported that the educational level of parents of children are lower than in parents of children who are not engaged in labour.

Q. Now that we are amid the Covid -19 pandemic, have you seen a rise in cases of child labour especially in the urban areas?

A. A rise in child labour has been reported as a consequence of the pandemic in many countries. At present, there is no such data available in Sri Lanka, according to my knowledge. However, the economic effects of the pandemic are likely to be long lasting and a rise in child labour in Sri Lanka can also be anticipated.

Q. Does domestic labour involving children also fall into the category of hazardous labour?

A. Domestic labour covers a wide range of tasks and varies from country to country and between employers. Children may face many hazardous during domestic work, including long working hours, carrying heavy loads, handling dangerous items such as knives, axes and hot pans and use of toxic chemicals. In addition, there is no mechanism to monitor the working hours, the workload, the working conditions or the payments in children who are engaged in domestic labour. Instances of physical, emotional and sexual abuse have also been reported in children engaged in domestic labour.

Q. From a psychiatrist’s point of view, spell out some of the mental health impacts of such children due to deprivation of their basic facilities and needs?

A. Child labour has been described to be associated with various negative psycho social outcomes including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, somatic complaints, peer problems, reduced pro-social behaviour, negative self-esteem and behavioural problems. Some studies have reported that children who are engaged in labour are almost six times more likely to develop mental health problems compared to children who are not engaged in labour. Younger age at starting work, longer duration of life-time work and longer working hours were shown to be risk factors for development of negative psychological consequences. These mental health effects are thought to be long lasting.

Q. Besides physical labour, many girls in domestic work especially are often sexually abused by the males in the households. What are the emotional , social and physical effects of repeated sexual violence have on these young girls?

A. Sexual abuse has shown to be associated with a wide range of adverse psychological effects. Victims of sexual abuse are at a higher risk of developing many psychiatric disorders including, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders and eating disorders. In addition, victims are likely to suffer from low self-esteem and low self-worth. They may have long term difficulties in building intimate relationships and may experience sexual difficulties.

With regard to physical effects, there is a risk of getting pregnant and acquiring sexually transmitted infections. In addition, in the Sri Lankan culture we find that often the victims of sexual abused are stigmatised and isolated from the community which adds to the psychological difficulties.

Q. What about unwanted pregnancies leading to forced unsafe abortions as a result of such sexual abuse?

A. According to the Sri Lankan law, the only instance where abortion is permitted is if the pregnancy carries a risk to the mothers’ life. Therefore, those who get pregnant as a result of rape, are forced to seek termination of their pregnancy through various illegal services which operate outside formal healthcare system. This results in abortion related complications such as bleeding, infection and may lead to long term impact on fertility.

Q. The Covid-19 pandemic has also prevented many young children from attending school and thus deprived them of their right to education. Your comments?

A. The child activity survey 2016 has found that the majority of the working children were not attending school, which is about 61% of the working children. About 39% of working children were attending school. This depended on the age of the child, with the percentage of children who are working without going to school was higher in the 15-17 age group and in the Urban sector

Q. Although we have a free education system many children are reported to dropout early from school due to pressing economic needs in the family What is the drop out rate of school children in Sri Lanka? Which areas have the highest drop out rates and why?

A. According to a survey done by the Department of Census and Statistics in 2016, 90.1% of the child population were attending school. Lack of interest in going to school, financial difficulties and disability were some of the reasons for not attending school in children. The percentage of children not going to school due to lack of interest was higher in the Estate sector compared to rural and urban sectors.

Q. Sri Lanka is a signatory of important Anti child labour laws such as the ‘Elimination of child labour’. Yet despite stiffer laws and penalties to violators, the problem continues to persist and rise by the day judging from reports in the social media. Why is this?

A. One reason may be the lack of awareness among the public about the laws related to child labour and its negative psycho social impacts. Although laws are present, weak enforcement of these laws may also be a contributing reason.

Q. As a psychiatrist do you think the psychological impact of child labour has not received sufficient attention?. If so what are the gaps you see in ensuring the protection of children from mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse and make it a safe world for them.?

A. Yes, the adverse psychosocial effects of child labour are often overlooked and needs more attention. Creating a safe environment for children requires collaboration between all stakeholders including the Government, Non-governmental Organisations, parents and the community as a whole. Increasing awareness about the adverse effects of child labour among the general public, stronger policies to eliminate child labour, strict law enforcement against those who violate these laws are needed. In addition, addressing the root causes of child labour, such as poverty and poor living conditions also needs to be addressed.

Q. What are the recent interventions taken by the Health Ministry and the Sri Lanka Psychiatrist Association to remedy these gaps ?

A. The Government of has pledged to end the Worst Forms of Child Labour by year 2022 and to Eliminate Child Labour by 2025. A National Steering Committee on Elimination of Child Labour was established by the Ministry of Labour to realise this goal. Recently, the age for compulsory education was raised to 16 years (from previous 14 years), as a way to promote school attendance and reduce child labour. The Government introduced the 13 years of guaranteed education program to reduce the number of children dropping out of school after the Ordinary Level examination. This program will enable students who failed the ordinary level examination to continue their school education for two more years to gain competency in at least one vocational subjects.

Q. Does the Health Ministry and Psychiatrist Association have a hotline for abused children? Does it operate all days and nights?

A. The National Child Protection Authority has their helpline “1929” that operates 24 hours per day. They are now also available through the 1929 Sri Lanka Child Protection Application. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health has their own helpline “1926” that is in operation throughout the day, where assistance is provided by trained mental health professionals.

Q. Your message to parents and guardians and all children who can read this and are engaged in child labour?

A. Child labour deprives children of their basic rights such as the rights for safety and education. There are many services that may be able to help guardians or parents with social and financial difficulties leading to child labour. Therefore, please seek assistance from social services or the Divisional Secretariat office in your areas for alternative options for financial assistance.