Coronavirus could wipe out two decades of progress in the war against child labor

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The boys struck out from their village in Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt and came to this frontier city to work at Maula Khan’s drink stand, a wooden cart shaded by an umbrella on a road bustling with migrants, war refugees and swerving rickshaws.

Umar Gul and Muhammad Siraj stood in the 108-degree heat, pouring freshly squeezed lemons mixed with jaggery into steel cups for 12 cents a serving. They were far from home, but when the coronavirus pandemic closed their elementary school in March, their families needed them to work.

“I decided to support my parents,” said Umar, a 14-year-old who was in the fourth grade. His 13-year-old cousin Muhammad, whose father owns the lemonade cart and demanded the boys join him, was in the grade below. Neither is counting on returning to school when classes resume.

“I’m not sure,” Umar shrugged, his shoulders slumped under a loose-fitting shalwar kameez. “My father doesn’t have enough money for my education.”

Experts warn that the COVID-19 pandemic could force millions of children in developing nations out of classrooms for good and into the workforce, reversing two decades of hard-won progress against underage labor and exposing vulnerable girls and boys to hazardous conditions, physical stress, emotional trauma, and exploitation.

“In precarious households that are economically vulnerable, they have to make a decision every day, how to spend their income and how to generate income,” said Cornelius Williams, associate director of child protection at UNICEF.

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