Case study

Safety first: Adapting the ILO’s child labour response in the face of COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Selim Benaissa’s first thought was of vulnerable children. As the ILO’s Chief Technical Advisor for the Myanmar Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, he has seen firsthand that poverty is a major factor driving high rates of child labour in the country – a problem that affects one in every 11 under-18-year-olds.

Article | 01 December 2020
Photo: Mayco Naing/ ILO
“Rumours were spreading that children were immune to the disease, but that simply isn’t true,” he says. “In fact, there is actually a serious risk that they might be among the worst hit by the ensuing economic crisis, as schools and businesses are forced to close during strict lockdowns and many households struggle to make ends meet.”

UNICEF and the ILO agreed that COVID-19 could mean that more children would be forced to take on work to boost family income, as they might be considered less likely to get caught during curfews. Children could also be asked to carry a heavier burden of housework or care of the sick, experts said.

There have been initial successes in reducing child labour in Myanmar in recent years – including positive legal developments and a 55% decrease in the percentage of ILO project beneficiary children engaged in child labour across three pilot areas over three years. Selim knew that the ILO and its partners had to act fast to adapt their on-the-ground work and ensure this progress was not reversed.
One solution his team developed was to offer community-level trainings for young people, demonstrating how to make soap and reusable cloth masks, and providing them with the raw materials to kick start a new business. The idea was that villagers would not only protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19, but also earn money during a tough time, reducing the risk of families pushing their children into work out of financial necessity.

Community leaders and ILO training participants were also mobilized to share key health messages about hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing with their neighbours, putting up posters and going door-to-door when group gatherings were no longer permitted.

Saw Nay Blute Thaw was one participant in the mask-making programme. As of September 2020, she and fellow makers have already produced nearly one thousand masks and two thousand bars of soap across six villages, benefiting 1,943 households in the Labutta district of Ayeyarwady.

“The authorities instructed all villagers to wear masks, but at that time there were none available in our village,” she explains. “We live far away from the nearest town, and it’s much too expensive if we order masks from downtown.”

After the sewing training, Saw Nay Blute Thaw was able to help her neighbours access affordable masks and earn 200 MMK (16 US cents) per piece. “I am grateful for this extra income and feel proud when I see children wearing my masks,” she says.

Keeping children safe can mean many things. In this case, community initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and generate much-needed income worked effectively, hand-in-hand.