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Climate Crisis Causing Bangladeshi Children to Quit School to Seek Work

As a result of family migration following climate-related disasters, UNICEF estimates that 1.7 million of the country’s children are currently working.

Alamin’s house stood on the bank of the Ilsha River in southern Bangladesh until last year, when the raging river damaged it and the family’s crops, forcing them to migrate to a slum near Dhaka. Alamin, whose father died of cancer a few years ago, now works on a shipbreaking crew, while his mother cooks for the crew. They make just enough money to feed and house themselves and Alamin’s two younger siblings, who are 3 and 5.

“We were once solvent,” said his mother, Amina Begum. “My husband earned money from our cultivable land, and my kid was enrolled in a local primary school,” she explained. But, after losing their home to the river and their savings to failed cancer treatments, Alamin can only hope for work now, she grieved. As harsh weather worsens flooding, erosion, and storms in low-lying Bangladesh, thousands of families like hers are fleeing to Dhaka’s slums.

For many of their children, who are also dealing with the effects of climate change, the move means the end of education and the beginning of a lifetime of hard labor. UNICEF stated in an August report that children in the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and India now face “very high” risks from climate change consequences. Globally, approximately a billion children in 33 nations face this level of jeopardy, according to the report. “For the first time, we have compelling proof of the impact of climate change on millions of children in South Asia,” said UNICEF’s regional director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei, in the report.

Droughts, floods, and river erosion have left millions of children homeless, malnourished, without access to healthcare or safe drinking water, and, in many cases, out of school, according to UNICEF officials. Laryea-Adjei stated, “Climate change has created an alarming dilemma for South Asian children.”

In Bangladesh, a fertile delta nation with almost 700 rivers, a tough mix of increased flood-driven erosion and a scarcity of land for resettlement is pushing many once-rural residents into urban slums. According to analysts, children, who account for roughly 40% of the country’s population of more than 160 million, are paying a disproportionately high price for the relocation.

According to UNICEF, the majority of Bangladeshi children who do not attend primary school live in urban slums or in remote or disaster-prone locations. The agency’s data show that approximately 1.7 million children in the country are laborers, with one in every four of them being 11 years old or younger. Girls, who are frequently employed as domestic workers, are rarely included in statistics, according to UNICEF.

Children can be seen working at tanneries, shipyards, tailor shops, and vehicle repair shops in the slums surrounding Dhaka. Others work in vegetable markets or at bus, train, and boat ports. Many claim to have lived in the countryside before being forced to relocate to the city.

Alauddin, 10, has been working at a vegetable market in Dhaka for several months, cleaning and transporting potatoes in metal bowls he can barely lift. He used to go to Debraipatch Primary School, near the northeast city of Jamalpur, until a major flood last year destroyed the school as well as his family’s home and land. They relocated to a Dhaka slum, where his father now drives a rickshaw and his mother works as a cleaner at a private school part-time. Alauddin’s work adds 100 taka ($1.15) every day to the family’s finances, money the family cannot live without, according to his father.

Floods last year inundated more than 500 educational institutions in 10 districts throughout Bangladesh, according to Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s deputy state minister of education. While several were completely washed away, the majority have already dried out — but just a few have been adequately fixed to be suitable for classes, he said.

The current flood-related closures follow protracted pandemic-related closures, which means that even youngsters who do not have to work are still absent from school in many regions. The Annual Primary School Census for 2021 in Bangladesh reported 10.24 million students attending 65,000 government primary schools – yet the drop-out rate in 2021 was more than 17%, with more than 2 million children dropping out. According to educational experts, global warming impacts were a major motivator of that departure from classrooms.

The Directorate of Primary Education’s director-general, Alamgir Mohammad Mansurul Alam, called the drop-out rate “alarming,” noting that “one of the major reasons is climate change. “We saw more than 500 schools devastated by water last year. The pupils were unable to attend school for an extended period of time,” he explained in an interview. According to him, “a substantial proportion of them never return to school and are involved in other work to support their family.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also forced the closure of more than 14,000 private primary schools in Bangladesh, according to Iqbal Bahar Chowdhury, chairman of the country’s private primary school association. According to an October joint report by UNICEF and UNESCO, 37 million students in Bangladesh have had their education delayed by school closures since the pandemic began in 2020.

Rupa, 9, is one of the children who is now working instead of attending school. Her family moved to a slum near Dhaka after her family’s home in Khulna Shyamnagar was devastated by a hurricane last year. Rupa’s mother finally abandoned her blind husband, who was unable to work, and left her daughter with him. The girl now earns 100 taka ($1.15) each day by assisting with the unloading of watermelons at the pier.

Syeda Munira Sultana, the International Labour Organization’s national project coordinator in Bangladesh, said she has encountered many girls like Rupa who have been compelled to work due to extreme weather or other climate change effects. “I was astonished to find numerous girls less than 10 years old working in a factory near Keraniganj that produces women’s clothing,” she added. “I spoke with them, and they claimed the most of them come from climate-vulnerable places like Barisal, Khulna, and Satkhira – and they’re all dropouts.”

Children compelled to work might suffer physical and mental harm, as well as lose their opportunity at an education, limiting their future chances and leading to intergenerational cycles of poverty and child labor, according to Tuomo Poutiainen, director of the ILO’s Bangladesh office. “Children are paying a high price for climate change,” said UNICEF’s representative in Bangladesh, Sheldon Yett.

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