Asia-Pacific

Children are being sent out to beg after coronavirus claimed their parents' income

Thandar and her mother wash their hands to protect themselves against COVID-19. Source: World Vision

World Vision surveyed 14,000 families in nine Asian countries and found children were being sent out to beg or do “other risky activities” to make up for their parents' lost work.

Nine-year-old Thandar wants to be a school teacher when she grows up.

But recently she has been begging on the streets of Mawlamyine in Myanmar after her parents lost income during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We begged for about six days and gave the money we got to our mum. She would buy food for us with that money,” the little girl said.

It is now the reality of thousands of underprivileged children according to a World Vision survey of 14,000 households in nine Asian countries. 

The report, Aftershocks: Out of Time, was released on Wednesday and found an estimated 85 million families across Asia had little or no food stocks and 110 million children are going hungry. 

Laila, 45, can not provide food for her children after losing her job due to COVID-19.
Laila, 45, can not provide food for her children after losing her job due to COVID-19.
Supplied

Eight per cent of those surveyed had sent children out to beg or do what they call “other risky activities”.

Seventy per cent of participants had fully or severely lost income.

Before the pandemic, Thandar’s father drove a trishaw, a type of bike taxi, and her mother washed clothes for neighbouring houses. But when COVID-19 hit, travel restrictions were imposed, and people no longer needed rides.

Then her mother got sick.

0:00

“In COVID-19 time, my dad had to pawn his trishaw because we had no income,” the nine-year-old said.

“We were very sad. There were days where we couldn’t eat a decent meal, just porridge.”

With no means to earn money, she was sent out onto the streets to beg.

According to the survey, in neighbouring Bangladesh, 34 per cent of children from households who had lost income during the pandemic were asked by their parents to beg, along with and 28 per cent of households in Cambodia.

A graph with the results of the World Vision survey.
Results of the World Vision survey.
Supplied

Co-author of the report Ellie Wong said World Vision estimates up to eight million children might be pushed into child labour or begging this year.

That figure is extrapolated from the survey using United Nations population data.

“We know when children are sent out to beg they might face increased child protection risks such as kidnapping or assault,” she said.

It's evidence that the predicted devastating effects of COVID-19 are now becoming a reality for many. 

Disproportionate effect on women

Laila is a 45-year-old widowed mother of two boys and lives in Bangladesh.

Prior to the pandemic, she worked as a maid in three houses, but she lost all her income during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“No one would allow me to work in their homes, so I started selling cakes, but even that didn’t work as people didn't want to risk their health by interacting with me,” she said.

“I was helpless and resorted to begging from house to house. Many turned their back on me as they were in a similar situation.”

Laila worked as a maid in three houses before the pandemic.
Laila worked as a maid in three houses before the pandemic.
Supplied

Ms Wong says the pandemic has affected women more significantly than men in many countries across Asia.

“I think COVID-19 is not gender-neutral and woman face different vulnerabilities than men,” she said.  

“Women are concentrated in the informal economy and the low-income work, which is more at risk during this crisis

“Prior to COVID-19, women did three times more care work then men and this is rapidly increasing with the crisis and lockdown measures where schools and children are affected.”

Tourism destroyed in Nepal

The average monthly income for those surveyed in Nepal has fallen by 86 per cent since the start of the pandemic, down from the equivalent of $287 to $39.

Ujjwal Rai runs a trekking company in the Himalayas. He said movement restrictions mean many, if not everyone, in the tourism industry have completely lost their source of income.

“Tourism is completely shut down in this country for, we think, one year,” the 32-year-old said.

“In Nepal, we do not have a big culture of saving, we don’t earn a lot of money to have savings or anything like that.

“Especially the porters and the guides, we do not work based on salary, we work on daily wages, so when work does not happen, nobody has any money to survive on.”

Ujjwal Rai takes a selfie in the Himalayas.
Ujjwal Rai runs a trekking company in the Himalayas.
Supplied

The Nepalese government has not provided welfare support, so it is up to the industry to come up with solutions.

“We have an organisation called TAAN (Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal), which is the head of all the travel companies, so they and one of the banks in Nepal are trying to give guides a little bit of help by issuing a credit card with US$150 per month,” Ujjwal said.

“At least it is something, rather than nothing."

“Other travel companies are doing crowdfunding for their staff with past guests and clients.”

Many people in Nepal work multiple jobs, but with public transport shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is hard to find or get to work.

“There are no jobs and no transportation,” Ujjwal said.

“The Kathmandu Valley consists of three districts and it is not too big a valley, so people go from one district to another daily for work, but because there is no transport available, they have to just not work.”

Ujjwal hopes the government starts testing more people for COVID-19, so locals have a better idea of how the virus is affecting the country.

“They don’t have people to do the testing, even if they had the PCR testing kits, they need to improve their manpower and get more testing kits. We have to focus on that,” he said.

Thandar and her family pose with her father's trishaw.
Thandar's father has redeemed his trishaw.
Supplied

For Thandar, life in Myanmar is now slowly returning to normal.

Her father has redeemed his trishaw with the help of World Vision and he is back at work earning 2,500 Myanmar Kyats ($2.64) a day. Thandar and her sister are no longer begging.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch