Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fiji Children face bleak future amid economic slump

Shailendra Singh, January 21, 2010

Shonal Chand, 16, has ditched school to work full time to assist his financially struggling family. He sells pineapples, watermelons and other local seasonal fruits by the roadside six days a week.

Today, he runs a stall at Laucala Beach Estate, a busy hub about 12km from Suva, the capital city. Chatting away while expertly skinning and slicing succulent pineapples with a dangerously sharp-looking knife, Chand said he had been doing this work since he was 14.

Before he quit school, he was working only on weekends. Last year his parents gave him permission to start working full-time. "I did not like school and I wanted to make money to help my family," he said, smiling.

Chand’s father, who is a taxi driver, and his mother, a packer at a food processing factory, did not protest too hard when their son said he wanted to leave school and work. The family was struggling to make ends meet, and the extra income was much needed.

According to Fiji’s 2002/2003 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, an estimated 43 per cent of the total population of 850,000 lives in poverty of varying degrees.

Observers believe that the situation of tens of thousands of poor families like Chand’s has become even more desperate since the global economic crisis struck in 2007. Such families are now forced to prematurely pull their children out of school and send them to work.

Fiji’s compulsory education age is 15, which is also the minimum legal age for work. The law also prohibits Fiji children below 18 from working during school hours. But just as in many developing countries with high levels of poverty and low levels of social welfare, child labour laws are either poorly enforced or ignored as strict implementation could lead to the affected family going without food.

Biman Prasad, an economics professor at the University of the South Pacific, said that despite having more than 95 per cent of children in school, there were more children living in poverty and more of them engaged in child labour than before.

"The main reason why we see more students not being able to complete primary education is financial difficulties," said Prasad. "While we have made some economic progress, we are still far from achieving levels of economic growth that can effectively lead to the reduction in poverty."

More ominous for Fiji is the finding by a non-government organisation, Save the Children Fiji, of increased child prostitution. A 2009 survey of 87 adults and 104 children below the age of 18 in seven sites around Fiji uncovered evidence of more young people engaging in prostitution as a result of the economic hardships brought on by the crisis.

The results of the survey of sex workers commissioned by the International Labour Organisation have yet to be released but a spokesperson for the international children’s charity said that many of the children interviewed had fallen into prostitution in the last two years as a result of economic hardships.

The 2008 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor - Fiji published by the United States Department of Labor stated that children worked in agriculture, including tobacco and sugar farms, the informal sector, in family businesses, and on the streets, selling snacks, shining shoes and delivering goods.

Children are exploited through prostitution, pornography and sex tourism, and they are trafficked within Fiji for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation by Fiji citizens, added the report.

The US State Department's 2008 Fiji Country Report on Human Rights said increasing urbanisation had led to more children working as casual labourers, often with no safeguards against abuse or injury.

Economically, Fiji was already on its knees when the financial crisis hit, with the country experiencing its fourth military coup barely a year earlier on December 2006.

The global increase in fuel and food prices that followed only worsened the country’s predicament. As a bulk importer of food and fuel, Fiji is especially vulnerable to the price increases. Last year, Fiji imported F$520 million (US$271.70 million) worth of food. Its fuel bill in the same year came to $757.2 million (US$395.64).

The country experienced a 6.6 per cent decline in growth in 2007 and zero per cent growth in 2008. Its economy was forecast to grow by 2.5 per cent in 2009.

On April 15 last year, Fiji’s Reserve Bank, in an effort to mitigate the effects of the financial meltdown, devalued the currency by 20 per cent. This effort to bolster the vital tourism industry, attract investors and protect foreign reserves led to a further increase in the cost of living.

Again, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the devaluation. Earnings either declined or remained static while the prices of basic food items and the cost of transport shot up.

Under the prevailing economic conditions, Chand’s family is only too happy he is able to bring home as much as $150 a week as a full-time fruit vendor.

Several other boys with similar stories to Chand are employed by the latter’s boss. According to the Fiji Wages Council chairman Kevin Barr, the dropout rate from Fiji schools before the onset of the global financial crisis was as high as 66 per cent, mainly because of poverty. Fiji’s high literacy rates notwithstanding, only about 49 per cent of students who enter primary school made it to secondary schools, he said.

There are concerns that the dropout rate may have worsened since the financial crisis struck. In April last year, Fiji’s education minister Filipe Bole said about 15 per cent of children did not survive the full eight years of their primary education, while about 74.9 per cent did not complete secondary education. School dropouts often end up in the labour force.

The Government is also taking measures to tackle what it sees as a looming problem. In addition to providing tuition-free education, it has set aside $10 million in the 2010 national budget for free school bus fares. Also, the education ministry has pledged to provide free textbooks to all students beginning this year, starting with primary schools.

This year about $7.4 million have been allocated for the Family Assistance allowance along with a monthly $30 food voucher programme for poor families. Such assistance is expected to benefit around 20,000 people.

"Those on family assistance (about 21,000 people) are only the tip of the iceberg of poverty," Barr was quoted as having told the Fiji Times, He added that 60 per cent of the people in full-time employment – numbering around 210,000 – earned wages that put them below the poverty line, and over 40 per cent of children in Fiji were malnourished. At the regional symposium on population and development, Dr Jimaima Schultz, the manager of Fiji’s National Food and Nutrition Centre, tabled research that showed 40 per cent of children between the ages of six months and five years were deficient in iron, vitamin A and zinc.

Dr Schultz said their research revealed that one in every three Fijian child surveyed was anemic. So were three out of every five children under two years of age. She added that food prices were, in the vast majority of cases, strong determinants of a family’s diet.
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Shailendra Singh heads the University of the South Pacific’s journalism programe. This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.

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