Child labour in Lebanon is on the increase because of compound and multiple crises: a deepening economic crisis, instability, the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the Beirut port explosions.
Economic hardship exacts a toll on millions of families, and sometimes, it comes at the price of a child’s wellbeing and physical safety. Nearly one in ten children worldwide are subjected to child labour, almost half of whom are in hazardous forms of work. In Lebanon, the dire economic situation has pushed more children into engaging in some form of paid work.
Over the past year, the sight of children working on the streets has become virtually commonplace. For many families, children now provide the only income. We met a community of teenagers – and younger – working in Lebanon’s third-largest city, Saida, and discovered what broke their dreams and drove them to the streets. Their names have been changed to protect their identity.
Fifteen-year-old ‘Mousa’ spends his days at a busy intersection in downtown Saida, dodging cars and trucks as he competes with other teenagers cleaning the windscreens of vehicles stopped at the traffic lights.
“I started coming here when I was eight”. Looking around the gathered group, he nods and says, “I guess I’ve been here the longest”. This doesn’t bring with it any rights of seniority, however. “Sometimes we fight – over money, of course. But everyone who comes here has the same life as my own. No one has anything else to do – and no one ever comes here by choice. It’s all we have”.
In Mousa’s case, his father is too sick to work, and his mother is dead. “I have younger brothers and sisters”, he says, “I’m the head of the family. I bring home the only money to buy food and pay rent”.
“I don’t honestly see a day ever come when I can stop coming here. What else am I going to do?” he says, looking at us for an answer.
The group is predominantly male, but not exclusively so.
‘Khadejia’ is 13. She looks younger than her age and thinner than feels healthy, but she’s keen to share her story, and we ask how long she’s been coming here. “It feels like forever”, she laughs.
“I started to work after this happened”. She rolls up her shirt sleeve to reveal deep and barely healed scarring from a hot oil burn received while cooking at home. “I needed US$500 for my surgery. Today, I’m cleaning windows for LBP1,000 (around 13 cents at the current black-market exchange rate). So, I’m never going to have my surgery, but at least I can make enough money to eat”.
The risks for this frail-looking teenager are extreme. “Some people treat us well, but many men offer me money to get in the car with them for sex. I used to get upset by this, but when you’ve heard it so many times, the words begin to hurt less”, she says.
The consequences of child labour are staggering, especially for those working on the streets. It can result in extreme bodily and mental harm and even death. It can lead to slavery and sexual or economic exploitation. And in nearly every case, it cuts children off from schooling and health care, restricting their fundamental rights and threatening their futures.
Amongst some of the children at this Saida intersection, school is a topic that comes up. Several want to find a school place – although few have ever been. For the older children – the 14- and 15-year-olds – school is now a place that only other children attend.
“An education or feeding our family. That’s the choice everyone here has had to make”, says Mousa, as all around him nod in agreement.
Street-based children in Saida are receiving support from UNICEF through our partners Terre des Hommes-Lausanne and SAMA for Development. Case management and other child protection and gender-based violence services are provided at SAMA’s local centre. Children also have access to other services - such as education, health and dental care and additional essential services - arranged by the partner or made through referrals to other agencies.
In addition to their intervention with children, caregivers are engaged in parenting support programmes and referred to services as required. Likewise, and as part of UNICEF’s approach, some of these children also benefit from UNICEF’s integrated wellbeing package to ensure access to further essential services.
This package is an integrated programme working further on prevention by, for example, ensuring that in addition to the psychosocial support, the child benefits from adapted learning that is suitable to his or her learning capacities and is supported with cash assistance.
This approach aims to equip children with skills - such as basic literacy and functional numeracy - that can help them navigate through their work, provide them with better opportunities, and reduce the risk of exploitation.
Vocational training and other training opportunities are available to bridge these children to formal employment. In 2020, the wellbeing package reached around 10,000 high-risk children between ten and fourteen and out of education.
*The names of the children in this story have been changed to protect their identity.
Downtown Saida, south Lebanon, in an area where children gather to sell water, clean car windows and ask for money. Fifteen-year-old ‘Mousa’ spends his days at a busy intersection in downtown Saida, dodging cars and trucks as he competes with other teenagers cleaning the windscreens of vehicles stopped at the traffic lights. “I started coming here when I was eight”. Looking around the gathered group, he nods and says, “I guess I’ve been here the longest”.
Identities of these at-risk children have been withheld for their protection. Saida, Lebanon. April 13, 2021.
“Sometimes we fight – over money, of course. But everyone who comes here has the same life as my own. No one has anything else to do – and no one ever comes here by choice. It’s all we have”.