What Kind of Parent Sends a Child Off to Do Dangerous Work?

06/12/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Last week I mentioned to someone that today is World Day Against Child Labor. "Yes," they said emphatically, "someone has to protect these children," and they asked, "How could their parents send them off into these terrible situations?"

Good question. What kind of parent sends a child off to do dangerous work?

For a start, a very, very poor parent. Child labor is often one of a range of terrible options open to the very poor in order to ensure basic survival. It's a kind of survival that is difficult to imagine, one amid brutal poverty that is a grinding, multigenerational trap where many children don't even survive to see their fifth birthday. Other options -- starvation, for example -- are so bad that the risk of sending a child even into hazardous work seems or actually is better than alternatives.

In some cases, putting one child to work -- or in a marriage (a form of sexual slavery) -- can mean having the resources to feed the rest of the family. Many child laborers are also the children of exploited children. Generations of families can be trapped in poverty or bonded labor from which there is there is little hope of escape.

Ending child labor requires fair wages for adults, adequate legal protections for children and access to health care and education. Education is absolutely critical in the fight against child labor. Where there are few educational opportunities for children to choose another path in life, they work because it prepares them for the life they are going to lead.

Some families do have what they need to survive. They have work, health care, and quality schooling and are busy building a future. Then disaster strikes, and these families lose everything. Conflict and disaster can destroy economies and narrow survival options for families and may also leave children orphaned or at the head of their household. In conflict and emergencies the rise of child labor and previously unthinkable strategies for basic survival is immediate and rapid.

The worst forms of child labor become more widespread as children, especially boys, are abducted and forcefully recruited as child soldiers or domestic servants for militant groups. Girls are forced into sex slavery as "wives" for militants or pushed into prostitution or transactional sex as a means of survival.

  • Child slavery in the form of domestic labor nearly doubled in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
  • In Jordan there has been a fourfold increase in the number of children working since the beginning of Syrian crisis. Nearly 50 percent of Jordanian households rely partially or entirely on the income generated by a child.
  • Since the earthquake in Nepal in May 2015, a dramatic increase in child marriage has been documented as criminals prey on orphans and vulnerable parents who, lured by the promise of a dowry or financial payment, offer their young daughters in marriage.

Despite these staggering statistics, despite the the fact that in these situations parents and children ask for education first, and despite a great deal of evidence that having a safe place to play and learn saves the lives of children in the short and long term, education in emergencies is grossly underfunded -- receiving only 1 percent of all humanitarian aid last year. Schools remain destroyed or closed, without teachers and materials. Children are forced to work, putting themselves at risk for abuse, injury and even death just to have enough to eat for a day.

Who will rebuild Syria with an entire generation out of school? How will poor Nepalese families plan for a future for their children where they will not be exploited or abused? How will children in the Central African Republic grow up to create a peaceful country where children and schools are safe from attack?

We need resources adequate to these conflict and disaster challenges that enables families to plan for the future and protect children from abuse. There has been a call for a Global Humanitarian Fund for Education in Emergencies to address the urgency and scale of the millions of children out of school in conflict and emergencies, and to respond quickly wherever these children are. We must respond to this call for this emergency fund and work rapidly -- building it and funding it as if children's lives depend on it.

Yes, someone has to protect these children. That someone is everyone.