The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep socio-economic inequalities across the world. The impact has been particularly severe for vulnerable children. Nobel Laureate and founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Kailash Satyarthi, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh about the need to prioritise children in the Covid recovery phase:
The arrival of Covid-19 not only halted progress achieved for our children, but due to the unequal Covid-19 response from world leaders, we are now at great risk of turning the clock back on the progress of the past few decades. What we are witnessing today is an imminent and most severe crisis for children in our times, and if we fail to act now we risk losing an entire generation. Almost 1 billion children remain locked out of school, at least 24 million children are expected never to return, and with the massive rise in poverty, we will inevitably see the first increase in child labour, trafficking and slavery in decades. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the entire world, but it has exposed and exacerbated the inherent inequalities of our society. This is further entrenched in the inequality of the world’s response to date, which has seen trillions of dollars announced for the richest parts of the world while a meager 0.13% of the global relief has been allocated to those most in need. This is not only a health or economic crisis, it is a crisis of justice. We risk making a mockery of the child-related SDGs.
You had predicted such a spike in child labour and trafficking in July. Have your fears come true?
Unfortunately, yes. My organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, alone has facilitated the rescue of over 1,600 children and arrest of over 132 traffickers and employers during the pandemic. Many were intercepted while being trafficked, despite the lockdown.
The pandemic has disrupted government schemes related to malnutrition alleviation and vaccination, as well as schooling in general. What will be the cost of this setback in the coming years?
The initial cost of the pandemic was high enough to set us back for years. However, if we had invested in time to protect the poorest communities, we could have arrested the rise in future costs. This could be done through home delivery of midday meal school rations, and early resumption of government schemes. This is not to say that efforts were not made, but the challenges were unprecedented. But even now, we can limit the damage and future cost by directing greater resources to the health, education and safety of the poorest families and their children. Economies cannot be sustainably revived only by bailing out businesses. No economy can thrive with an under-educated or unhealthy future generation. Our children must not be made to pay the cost of our choices today.
Back in April, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres had warned that we are looking at a lost generation due to the pandemic. You clearly think governments are not paying enough attention to children in their Covid recovery plans. Why?
While efforts have been made in this direction, no government has done enough to protect its children during the pandemic. And I ask you to not take my word on this. I am only a voice for the most left behind child. I ask you to assess the responses of governments by the reality being faced by the children in the country. The most marginalised child who died of starvation, or a child who is being trafficked for child labour or sexual exploitation because of the loss of employment of their parents is the only true judge of any nation’s humanitarian response to the pandemic.
With the economy coming crashing down and unemployment rates drastically rising, there will be a huge demand for cheap labour. Who will fulfil this demand? It will be children who have already been disconnected from school and their families, and are on the verge of starvation. These children will be trafficked in large numbers for child labour and slavery. Young girls will be sold for marriage and prostitution. These threats are real and are already in motion. The primary and immediate gap in the global response is in terms of resources and political will to prioritise marginalised children and their families.
Could you elaborate on the Fair Share for Children Report released in September and why you are insisting that 20% of Covid recovery funding be specifically allocated to 20% of the most marginalised children of the world?
In May earlier this year, I joined 88 Nobel laureates to sign a joint statement demanding that 20% of the Covid-19 response be allocated to the most marginalised 20% children and their families. This is the minimum fair share for children. Even if only $1 trillion of the initial $5 trillion global relief was allocated to the most marginalised communities, it could cancel two years of debt for low income countries, provide the external funding required for two years of the SDGs on education and water and sanitation, and a full 10 years of the external funding for health related SDGs. This is a matter of justice. We should learn from this crisis that the world is interconnected and move towards globalisation of compassion.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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