October 8th, 2020
By Arshad Mohmand
Madrarullah’s dreams of growing up to be a doctor were dashed when the coronavirus pandemic hit Pakistan. The resulting lockdown had crippled his father’s clothing business – the ninth-grader could no longer afford to go to school and dropped out to labor in a local workshop. Madrarullah and his father now toil to support and feed an eight-persons strong family, earning roughly four to five hundred rupees every week which he spends to run his home.
“I dropped out of ninth grade and apprenticed with a mechanic,” he narrated. “My father used to work, but because of the virus, his shop closed down. Our earnings have shrunk. I have started working as a mechanic now, and whatever I earn is spent on our living expenses.”
Laborers employed in various workshops in the area say that there has been a very marked increase in the number of minors coming in for employment. According to the United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF), around 22 million Pakistani children are out of school. This number is expected to increase by the hundreds of thousands following the coronavirus pandemic, a sizeable portion of whom will be pushed toward child labor. The international body has predicted a record increase in child labor across the globe in the next two decades.
Asghar Khan, a workshop craftsman, concurs that the contagion severely affected the livelihoods of parents, who were then forced to send their children to workshops to earn and learn the trade.
“So many children are coming to us [for jobs], there is so much poverty now. They cannot afford school anymore so they bring their children to us,” he related. “We normally do not employ children who are too young, but we have little choice when desperate parents tell us they have no other options.”
Provincial Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Education Shahram Khan Tarakai explained that like in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more people below the poverty line in Pakistan. However, it is currently impossible to know the exact number of children forced out of school due to the resulting economic catastrophe.
“We are monitoring this issue, and giving incentives [to parents] to send their children to schools, such as our stipend program for women and children,” he said. “COVID-19 has only just now receded and schools are open again, so it is too early to tell how many children are returning to school, how many are not and why.”
According to the September 2020 report issued by the Asian Development Bank, an estimated 2.2 million Pakistanis may become unemployed due to the economic losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It should be noted that as of 2020, roughly a quarter of the 220 million people residing in Pakistan are living below the poverty line.