How Thousands of Boys in Bangladesh Were Forced into Work

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Rekha can’t seem to remain still when the sun goes down over Dhaka, Bangladesh. Twisting her plastic bangles, the 34-year-old mother of two checks her phone to make sure she hasn’t missed a call from her 12-year-old son, who was due home 30 minutes earlier. Rekha walks outside, her anxiety etched all over her face as she looks through the front gate. “This job is too dangerous,” she says, frowning. “Every morning I say goodbye and I pray, ‘Please Allah, send him home tonight.’”

Rekha is a cause for concern. In the 18 months since her elder son Rafi started work in a local glass factory, he’s returned home bruised and bleeding more than once. He cut through the skin on his hand with a knife he had made to cut a window pane. As blood soaked the child’s T-shirt, he was rushed to the emergency room by his employer—but nobody called Rekha to let her know. “I feel bad inside, like I am a bad mother,” she says. “I know Rafi doesn’t want to work. He wants to be at school.”

Continue reading: How COVID-19 Pandemic Threatens Children

When authorities first shuttered Bangladesh’s schools in March 2020, nobody could have anticipated they would remain closed for the following 18 months, in what would go on to become one of the most restrictive school closures in the world. In September 2021 classes were reopened on a rotational schedule, however schools were shut down for four weeks in January and February due to a COVID-19 spike. Two years later, advocates for child rights claim that many thousands of students haven’t returned to school in the United States. They claim that the majority of these boys are 12-year-olds and older, who were forced into working full time during the interim.

Rafi, a former student at Shantipur High School Dhaka aged 5-17 was one of the 1,100 who were there until March 2020 when government declared a nationwide lockdown. In September 2021, the school’s staff heaved open the metal gates that face a busy street in central Dhaka and waited; teachers poised in pressed shirts and blazers waited for them to return, blackboards still damp from a sponge.

But only 700 pupils appeared over the following days, and numbers haven’t increased in the months since. Many of the benches and tables made from wood were so worn out that they were being sold off to make scrap materials. Adolescent boys make up two-thirds the missing children from classrooms. “They are the only wage earners of their families now,” says head teacher Biplab Kumar Saha.

While it’s impossible to know exactly how many children in Bangladesh have started working since the start of the pandemic, attendance figures for 20 schools across the country collated by TIME reveal that boys accounted for at least 59% of dropouts from March 2020 to November 2021, a gender imbalance confirmed by data from the nonprofit organization BRAC.

A growing crisis stirred Bangladeshi authorities to ratify the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 138 on child labor in March. The authorities declared that children under 14 years old should not be allowed to work in any sector and pledged to eliminate child labor completely in the three-year period. But as household incomes across the country plunged by an average of 23% during the first 18 months of the pandemic, many parents say they’re out of alternatives: unless their son goes to work, his siblings won’t be able to eat.

That wasn’t the case two years ago. When the schools first shut, Rafi’s parents were concerned about their sons’ education—Rafi’s younger brother is just 8—and joined with other neighborhood families to find a private tutor to teach a dozen of the local children for an hour every day. But as weeks passed and Bangladesh remained in lockdown, the family’s financial situation quickly deteriorated.

By the summer of 2020, Rekha’s husband Tajul, a successful entrepreneur, had lost his clothing business and started working two jobs—manning a small roadside stall by day, before patrolling a market as a security guard through the night. The hours were long, and his income still wasn’t enough to pay back microcredit loans and cover rent. Rekha was too sick and suffering from diabetes, abscesses, and other ailments to work, and debt collectors started showing up at his door. Tajul reached out to Rafi in desperate times. “It wasn’t the plan, but the situation became really bad,” Rekha recalls.

Rekha never thought she’d be sending her son 12 hours a day to work in a glass factory. “But now we are living a devastated life,” she says, gesturing around the bare concrete room where the whole family eats and sleeps.

The pandemic began with concern that girls would be forced to marry as families struggled to pay the bills. The nonprofit Manusher Jonno Foundation conducted a survey and found that almost 14,000 girls were married underage in the first half-year of lockdown. Half of these women were 13-15 years old. Rafi studied at Shantipur high school, and teachers carefully tracked the progress of female students. In most cases, the dropouts had moved to rural villages and enrolled in school outside of the city. At least 15 teenage girls were forced to marry illegally. It’s 15 too many, the school’s head teacher Saha says—–but it’s also fewer than he had feared. What he hadn’t anticipated was the impact the pandemic would have on the boys. “It was beyond our expectation and imagination.”

Secondary education isn’t free in Bangladesh, and tuition fees average approximately 3,000 taka ($35) a year. One in five people lived on less than $1.90 per person before the pandemic. This means that the cost of stationary, textbooks, uniforms, and other supplies can add up quickly. In an effort to combat the danger of child marriage, girls aged 11-16 receive a modest uniform stipend as well as a tuition subsidy up to 3500 Taka ($40) per year. This is to encourage their families to continue sending them to school. “But for families with sons, education presents a significant cost,” says Safi Khan, director of education for BRAC. “It’s an impossible situation, and there is very little support.”

This is one of the first indicatorsAccording to Tuomo Putiainen (Bangladesh director, International Labour Organization), the sign of an economic crisis is when teenage boys drop out of school. “It is gendered,” he says. Many families believed that their daughters were too risky to go to work after schools closed. However, sons could be an alternative source of income in times of emergency.

Continue reading: The Philippines Still Hasn’t Fully Reopened Its Schools Because of COVID-19. How is this affecting children?

Despite millions of dollars in foreign aid supporting girls’ education, child-rights advocates in Bangladesh tell TIME they are struggling to summon equal support for the thousands of adolescent boys who have dropped out of school since the outbreak of COVID-19. It’s as if donors are “intentionally blind” to child labor, says Tony Michael Gomes, director of World Vision Bangladesh. “I see a huge disconnection … If you really ask what exactly they’re funding and if their resources are impacting the lives of the children, the answer might be no.” Sheldon Yett, UNICEF representative to Bangladesh, agrees. “I don’t want to de-emphasize the risk that girls are under,” he says. “But we must not lose sight of the specific needs of boys.”

For many parents, the costs of their children’s education have collided with mounting debts, leaving them with few options but to pull their sons from their classrooms. “I felt terrible,” says Helena, whose 11-year-old, Alomgir, threw his exercise books in the trash when she told him he couldn’t return to school in September.

When Alomgir’s friends left the village and traipsed along the track to the local elementary a few days later, Helena found her son sobbing in the shade of their wooden hut. “When I saw him crying, I cried too,” she says. She feels his pain. Helena was a top-performing child in her school’s class when she was a kid. However, her brother forced Helena to leave school to get married. At 12 years of age, she was still a child.

Helena has already had to reconcile herself with depriving one son of an education: five years ago, her husband fell sick, and the family had to send Alomgir’s then 11-year-old brother to work at a brick kiln, where he earns 300 taka ($3.50) a day. “We thought that we could ensure the rest of our sons were educated by sacrificing the eldest one,” Helena says. The countrywide lockdown in March 2020 saw the kiln close for four months and the family was forced to borrow 40,000 taka ($465) to pay rice and to help with medical costs. Two years later, they still owe 30,000 taka ($350), and Helena fears it’s Alomgir who will continue to pay the price.

There is not much data on Bangladeshi child labor. According to the ILO, rates appeared to be decreasing before the pandemic, but there hasn’t been a nationwide, government-led survey on child labor since 2013. UNICEF’s own 2019 study found that one in 10 Bangladeshi boys aged 12-14 was employed full-time. Research suggests that most boys aged 14 and under earn less than $40 per monthly.

“We don’t have updated statistics since the pandemic [began], so we don’t know exactly what the impact is going to be on child labor, but we know anecdotally that it’s a lot worse,” says UNICEF’s Yett.

Even before Bangladesh ratified the convention, its constitution decreed that “hazardous” child labor, such as brick breaking or leather tanning, was illegal—but the current law does not prohibit children under the age of 14 from providing for their families in informal sectors, such as domestic work or agriculture. TIME decided not to publish children’s names or faces in this article because they were victims. Child-rights advocates say that there are rarely any consequences for children who work in any industry. They cite a July 2021 incident where a fire broke out at a juice factory, killing at least 52 workers, and at least 16 children under 11. While the courts case remains pending, owners were released after being briefly detained.

Although there are obvious risks, factory owners report that they have witnessed a significant increase in families offering their sons work. TIME speaks with a Narayanganj resident who estimates that his garment factory has had approximately 10 children since the outbreak of the pandemic. The youngest child was just 8 years. “Their age doesn’t matter. “Rather, is he capable of handling it? Can he deliver?”

The businessman argues that he’s supporting the families the government has failed. “We have too many people in this country and too few resources,” he says. “Education gives no guarantee to [the children’s] future.” A few meters away, two boys, ages 12 and 13, are folding knockoff Adidas tracksuits, coughing on clouds of cotton dust.

Inflation is on the riseAs more people fall into poverty, it will be harder for Bangladeshi children to get out of work and into school. Yett says that public ratification by the ILO convention, which states that any child younger than 14 years old should not go to work, is more important than the public-facing ratification. He notes that the legislation doesn’t even come into effect for another year. “There is no single magic bullet here. Ratification of the convention is critical, but not enough.” There are many factors at play, he says, including the fact that education is compulsory only until age 10, and that there is little to no social support for families facing financial collapse.

Still, since schools partially reopened in September, many teachers have started visiting students’ homes, pleading with their parents in person to return their children to class. “We loved them,” Saha says of his school’s former students, adding that some of his teachers were close to crying when they saw their once overcrowded classrooms filled with empty desks.

Today, two years after he last attended school, Alomgir is silent as he tends to the family’s five goats—scratching one behind her ears as he ushers her toward the pile of grass he cut that morning. His parents don’t want him to join his father and brother at the brick kiln. There is plenty of work on the family’s farm, and Helena isn’t ready to give up her hope that they could find the money for him to resume schooling in the future. “I have to believe I can make it happen,” she says.

Some families may be less optimistic. Just a 10-minute walk from where his former classmates are studying English and history, Rafi sweeps the floor of the glass factory under his employer’s watchful eye. Before the pandemic, he was boisterous and talkative, his parents say—a bouncing ball of energy that never kept quiet, and rarely remained still.

Today, he is exhausted when he comes home and is prone for outbursts. “Because of you, my life is over,” he tells his mother. Rekha doesn’t know how to comfort him. She fears he may be right. “We are ruining his future,” she says, blinking back tears.

Simmone Shah/New York reporting

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