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Sending Children to Work to Alleviate Poverty
May 6, 2021

In the context of extreme poverty, families resort to sending their children to work to help supplement the family income. This is not trafficking per se, but it can lead to significant risk for their children.

The Practice of Sending Children to Work

The UNODC’s recent “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons” (2020), the report states:

The practice of sending children to work is generally reported as a coping mechanism for families to survive in conditions of extreme poverty.171 According to a seminal study on the drivers of child labour, “parents withdraw their children from the labour force as soon as they can afford to do so” and “a family will send the children to the labour market only if the family’s income from non-child labour sources drops very low.172 This practice could easily deteriorate into child trafficking. A study on children trafficked for forced labour in brick kilns in South Asia, for example, refers to farm debts compelling families to send their children for work as one of the risk factors for child trafficking.173

The report also shows the following points:

  • That household poverty is the greatest factor determining whether children are sent to work
  • Household poverty also relates to how much the children’s income affects and contributes to their basic food security
  • This kind of child labor is prevalent not only in poor countries, but also in the poorer segments of wealthier countries
  • Child labor decreases as national economies improve

While the report doesn’t explicitly make the links explaining why sending children to work exacerbates risk of trafficking, in our experience, it comes from what kind of work is available to children–generally, work that is not completely legitimate because they are underage, low-skilled, and under-educated–and what kind of work is most lucrative–and, for the communities where we work, the sex industry can be quite lucrative compared to other options.

Supporting Families Economically to Prevent Trafficking

Although we take care to be mindful not to engage in “mission drift”–that is, getting distracted from our main purpose by other needs–we do believe in looking at at-risk children’s cases holistically to understand what puts them most at risk. For a lot of families, the scholarships are what they need to help ensure education remains affordable or possible. 

However, there are families even further out on the margins, who not only cannot afford costs of schooling, but also struggle to meet even more basic needs like food, or who struggle under crushing debts, and sending children to work becomes a tempting way to get out from under those debts. We work to include these families in training programs, like farming fish or growing organic vegetables or raising chickens for supplemental income, and skill development programs like in financial literacy, to help them learn to manage their finances better.

These things might look unrelated, but they aren’t. If we look at trafficking simply from the stereotypical view of a child abducted or lured in by a trafficker, we can miss a big factor in why those lures are effective to begin with. It’s not enough to only raise awareness about trafficking. We need to address the needs that drive a person toward a trafficker at all.