Breadwinners instead of going to school

As the society slides, Lebanon’s children are increasingly becoming family breadwinners

UNICEF Lebanon
A team from UNICEF – including UNICEF Lebanon Chief of Communications Raquel Fernandez (second right) and Programme Officer Rana Bizri (right) visits a PWHO drop-in centre
17 December 2021

In 2021’s Lebanon, children have adults’ concerns. Many girls and boys have no chance to attend school. Some try to combine school and work, but all too often must drop out of school well before reaching the legal age of employment and become child laborer’s who are exposed to many risks on the streets. “We have to earn to pay for the rent and food”, they say. With our partners on the ground and the support of our donors, UNICEF is providing safe spaces and case management services to these children.

“Our parents need the money we earn. What would they do if we stopped working now?”. Amal is 15. We met her at a UNICEF-supported drop-in center managed by our partner the Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) in a suburb of Tyre, southern Lebanon.

Activities in this center include phycological support; case management to guide and support children with specific issues they might be facing; information sessions on health and hygiene habits, as well as on prevention and management of abuse, exploitation, and violence; and positive parenting for their caregivers. In addition to these services, the center is a safe space for these children where they can simply come, rest and play.

Over the past two years of economic decline in Lebanon, as parents have lost jobs, the sight of children working on the streets has become virtually commonplace. In many households, children now provide the only income.

The impact on children – some we met as young as five – is devastating.

Amal is one of the eight child labourers we met at this center. Aged between eight and fifteen, they shared their concerns with us before they started singing and playing at this UNICEF-supported drop-in centre where they come for relief and support.

None of these children’s parents works. In every instance, the children and their siblings work to provide the total income for their household. Listening to them, looking into their eyes, you can tell how heavily they feel the weight of responsibility to bring money home. They talk about the pressure of being the family’s breadwinner. “We have to earn to pay for the rent and food”, they say.

UNICEF drops in on a session at the organisation’s Tyre safe space

The immediate impact of child labour is wide-ranging and shocking. 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.

Long-term effects show that child labourers are more likely than others to end up in poorly paid and insecure work as adults or to be unemployed. And there is a high probability that they will live in poverty and that their children will share the same fate.

“I worry. I feel stressed. I feel sad”, laments 13-year-old Ala’a. “So, I end up working longer hours to try to bring more money – but it’s never enough”, she says before adding, “This is our life”.

She notes that the first expenses to be cut are food and rent. Her family owes seven months’ rent to their landlord, and she’s waiting for the knock on the door when he comes to tell them to leave.

Isra’a is nine, Hamadi eleven. Together, until recently, they would walk the streets of their Tyre neighborhood selling packs of tissues. No longer, though.

“We stopped because older children came and started beating us. They felt we were competing with them. They took all our money”, reports the nine-year-old.

Hamadi comments that, now, “there’s no money to give our parents. We must find a new way to earn money somehow. Not earning is not an option”.

As is too often, these young children felt unable to turn to those in authority for protection.

“We did go and complain to one father, though. The next day his son came to us again. He said, “every time you tell my father, I’ll come and hit you harder”. In the end, this centre was the only place we could turn to for help”.

A typical eleven-year-old boy in many respects – “I love to spend my days playing here” – in other ways, Hamadi speaks with a voice of tired desperation: “I’ll return to selling when I’m bigger and stronger. When I can fight back to survive”.

UNICEF implementing partner the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization supports southern Lebanon’s working children through activities delivering specialised psychosocial support at their Tyre drop-in centre

None of the children questions their parent’s insistence that the child goes out to work. The children themselves see their parents as having no alternative. Each child has accepted the burden of pressure becoming a breadwinner brings.

Child workers are typically exposed to many risks. 13-year-old Rayene works in the city’s surrounding fields, picking vegetables. “It’s very hard in the fields”, she says. “It’s hot, and we work long days. A girl my age passed out from the heat and exhaustion recently”.

For others, the dangers of child labour can deliver permanent physical harm.

Amina, now 15, also works picking vegetables. She quit school four years ago to stay home and care for a younger sibling. Three years ago, Amina injured her eye while picking. The damage to her cornea is disturbing to witness.

“I still can’t see properly”, she says. “No one has helped me, and I can’t afford to pay for any treatment. If it hasn’t improved over the past three years, it’s never going to improve on its own, is it?” she asks.

And it’s harder for girls. “We cannot work anywhere and do every job. Even moving around the city is getting more dangerous”, notes 13-year-old Amal. “We try to move in groups for safety”.

Their outlook is bleak. “When I look to the future, I see life getting harder”, continues Amal. “My biggest worry is the rent. We don’t want to lose our home. It’s our safe space”.

Without exception, when questioned on their hopes for the future, every child responds with the same dream – for a better life, a healthy life, and a safe life. As the situation worsens in Lebanon, this dream of basic rights fulfilment is postponed for too many children. But, with the support of Switzerland, UNICEF and partners, they have a safe space providing relief, guidance and support.