HONG KONG—Millions of children are left behind in poorer regions of China as their parents work elsewhere, leaving them vulnerable to mental health problems, sexual abuse, and poor grades in school, a recent report said.
“Left-behind children are more likely to be victims of crime, and a significantly higher proportion suffers from psychological and behavioral problems caused by long-term separation from their parents,” the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin (CLB) said in a recent report.
The CLB called for radical reform of China’s social services, including the hukou, or household registration system that links rights to education, health care, and social assistance to a person’s hometown, denying them to the children of migrants in richer cities.
Blast, abuse cited
In a statement, the group cited an explosion at an illegal firecracker workshop in Guangxi on Nov. 12, which killed at least one child and injured a dozen others.
“All the victims were ‘left-behind children’ whose parents were working in factories hundreds of kilometers away in neighboring Guangdong,” it said.
The statement added that the tragedy highlighted not only the problem of child labor but also the vulnerability of left-behind children to abuse and exploitation.
It said a recent survey in Zhechuan county, in China’s central province of Henan, showed that 34 percent of the 62 rapes in the county involved left-behind children.
“Most of the victims were aged only between five and 12 years old, while the offenders were usually acquaintances or neighbors aged over 50,” it said.
According to recent government-backed surveys, 20 percent of children in the eastern province of Anhui have been left behind, either alone or taken care of by other family members.
The study identified five key areas of development in which such children lost out: they lacked emotional support, practical assistance, the care of others, academic guidance, and protection from crime.
Most of the children in the study said that they barely got the chance to talk to their parents, hardly spent any time with them, and that no one paid attention to the emotional impact on them.
‘We should show concern’
More than 32 percent of “left-behind children” reported mental health problems including emotional isolation, loneliness, mood instability, rebelliousness, and lack of self-confidence.
“We should feel sorry for these kids,” Anhui-based social activist Wang Zhaojun said.
“The whole of society, especially the government, should show some concern for their plight and give them some love and care.”
“The problems in the government-backed report all exist,” Wang said.
“All of them: the problems of food, accommodation, emotional and physical well-being, education and upbringing, they are all there.”
Girls in this situation were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape, the report said.
More than 66 percent of criminal cases brought to the Huaibei Municipal People’s Court in 2007 involved left-behind children.
“Some of these children die in accidents, and some of the girls are even subjected to sexual abuse,” said Liao Tianqi, deputy editor of the U.S.-based online magazine China Observer.
“I think this is a problem that everyone should be concerned about. There is a dire need for a plan of action to address this intractable problem.”
On top of such problems, left-behind children are often forced by circumstances into caring for elderly relatives, instead of getting the care and attention they need to develop.
In the wake of the Guangxi explosion, Chinese labor activist Liu Nianchun called on the government to make new laws to protect left-behind children.
“There should be legislation on this matter, for example, dictating that migrant workers have to take their children with them when they go to the cities to work,” Liu said.
“Once there, they should enjoy the same treatment as the urban children get. This would likely make them think about taking the kids with them, and we would see a lot less of this sort of thing.”
CLB said the only way to ensure equal treatment for all children was the eventual abolition of the hukou system.
In the meantime, local governments should be made responsible for the welfare of all children resident in their area, regardless of origin.
“The government has sponsored a program of stand-in parents to care for left-behind children, but all too often they are recruited under a quota system and lack the time or ability to do what is needed,” it said.
Migrants suffer too
CLB said that children taken to big cities alongside migrant worker parents often showed the same emotional problems as those left behind, while their access to health care and education was prohibitively expensive, under discriminatory rules.
“Migrant children ... and their mothers suffer from noticeably higher levels of disease and preventable death simply because they do not have the same level of access to health care as their local neighbors,” it said.
Migrant children were forced to pay up to three times as much as local children to receive the same education or alternatively study at inferior-quality migrant schools, it added.
Original reporting in Mandarin by He Ping and Tang Qiwei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.