With schools closed in Uganda until January next year, many children have been pushed into dangerous or exploitative work as a means to provide for their families.

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Uganda: Child labour has grown over the duration of the pandemic. | Credit: Human Rights Watch.

Despite world efforts to combat Covid-19, the ripples of the pandemic are still felt around the world as many school-aged children spend their vital years in risky, and sometimes even volatile working environments due to the unparalleled impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are millions of children throughout Uganda, particularly in rural areas, who have not entered a classroom or had any time with their teacher for about 18 months. A lucky few have had the opportunity to resume their education through the use of studying online or being able to access educational content via newspapers and TV. However, for others, it’s up to their parents.

A few parents have started homeschooling their children, having a teacher come over, or having children in the same area go to a teacher’s house for lessons. Unfortunately, this is mostly the case in urban areas where families tend to be better off.

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Children learning from home during lockdown in Uganda. | Credit: World Vision International.

During 2020, when schools were initially closed due to the virus, the government considered buying just over 10 million radio sets to aid disadvantaged children in their home learning throughout lockdown. The plan, however failed in parliament.

With so many schools still being closed, children are now more vulnerable than they were before. The country has now seen a surge in child rape and forced marriages, leading to a greater number of child pregnanacies since the start of the pandemic.

In June 2021, Human Rights Watch and The Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) released a report, the day before World Day Against Child Labour. The report “I Must Work to Eat” explored the growth in child labour and poverty during the pandemic, and the pandemic’s effect on children’s rights throughout several countries in Africa.

Children detailed working long, tiring hours for little to no pay due to their parents losing their jobs and/or income due to Covid-19. Many reported their own working conditions saying they were hazardous, with some recounting violence, harassment and pay theft.

“The pandemic has hit Ugandan families hard, forcing many children into exploitative work,” said Angella Nabwowe Kasule, programs director at Initiative for Social and Economic Rights to Human Rights Watch.

“The government should immediately get children out of precarious labour situations and increase cash assistance to families to prevent further increases in poverty and child labor.”

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Children working in Lugazi, Uganda. | Credit: Shutterstock.

The report included 81 children who are working currently in countries such as Ghana, Nepal and Uganda, with some children as young as 8.

In Uganda, ISER spoke to 32 children ages 9 to 16 who worked at gold mines, stone quarries, fisheries, in agriculture, construction, and sometimes even on the street. Many started working to provide for their families, many of whom received little to no aid after breadwinners lost their jobs throughout the pandemic.

“I started working because we were so badly off,” a 13-year-old girl told ISER. “The hunger at home was too much for us to sit and wait.”

Many Ugandan children reported being stuck in work that put them in physical danger. At stone quarries, children recalled injuries from flying stones, sharp particles getting into their eyes (as no protective eyewear is provided). Children revealed to researchers wounds due to “slashers” they use to clear fields or the sharpness of the sugarcane stalks they cut. Others detailed transporting heavy loads.

Many said they worked long hours for as little as $2 a day, mostly in between school closures and lockdowns. In Uganda, almost all of the children spoken to worked more than 10 hours a day, with some working 7 days a week. Several children said they spend over 16 hours a day working.

The government offers home-learning packages for children to teach themselves and educational broadcasts via TV and radio, however, no Ugandan children interviewed had had the ability to access the provided resources. This is partly due to many families being under other strains in the country already, e.g. the fact that just 43% of the Ugandan population had electricity in 2018.

The majority of children interviewed aspired to come back to school and finish their education, although several said they were no longer able to afford the school fees. Some said they never planned to go back to school, and instead were working to enable the education of their younger siblings.

As a result of the pandemic, Uganda has increased its funds dedicated to social protection, but neither of its main cash programs target households with children.

Almost two-thirds of the Ugandan children included in the research said their families were not selected for any form of Covid-19 relief. Others reported their families receiving minimal food assistance, which didn’t last for more than a couple of months.

“For many families with children, government assistance in response to the pandemic has been far too little,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Uganda and its donors should scale up cash allowances to families and eliminate the school fees that deprive many children of their right to education.”

The thirst for knowledge in Africa is evident in the upcoming generation, even if it is a privilege not awarded to many. Some children, sadly, do need handouts. Others will benefit from their government’s increased public spending.

Did you know that tourism is a way in which governments raise money for their economies? Aside from the socio-economic woes that take place in different countries, there are beautiful travel opportunities that you can utilize that will help restore several governments’ budgets, and this in turn, should categorically allow them to allocate more towards their public education budget.

The Road to Ghana in December is an initiative to encourage all those in the diaspora to return home and see the beauty of Ghana, and Africa as a whole. Consider this for your vacation plans, – your travel expenditure could trickle down and afford a little boy or girl the opportunity to go to school.