Left-Behind ChildrenChina has undergone swift urbanization and development in recent years. However, reaping the rewards of this progress has not been easy for everyone. In search of better job opportunities, millions of Chinese parents in poverty have left their communities in hopes of creating a better future for their children. However, these parents must leave their children behind to do so. These left-behind children (LBC) may remain with a caregiver, family member, friend or institution, or they can be left entirely on their own.

There are about 70 million left-behind children in China, and they experience many effects of poverty. The average ages of LBC range from 6 to 17. While LBC are more prominent in rural China, the number of LBC has risen in urban areas as well. As a result, many children in China are mentally and physically ill, don’t receive a proper education and are essentially stuck in the cycle of poverty. Parental absence contributes to all of these factors.

Poor Quality of Education

While their parents seek more money in the city, left-behind children are left in inadequate school buildings with limited supplies and ill-prepared teachers. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Lijiah Zhang, an author and journalist who examines China’s left-behind children, stressed that education is the largest problem these children face. “Without their parents, the children are more likely to lose interest in their studies and sometimes drop out of school, the opposite of what their parents hope for,” she said. Indeed, over 13% of left-behind children drop out by the eighth grade. Another reason for dropouts is the household responsibilities some left-behind children must take on, such as agricultural work, which leaves them with no time for academics.

For those who do continue their education, the quality is waning. With teachers lacking incentives and resources, education is a large obstacle for LBC. Educators hired for rural teaching positions are often fresh out of training and possess little teaching experience to offer a proper education. But because they are cheaper to pay, schools that lack funding hire them constantly. The staff is overworked and tremendously underpaid, with some rural educators working over 12 hours a day. This poor teaching quality combined with cramped classrooms and a lack of technology sets rural children up for failure.

High Dropout Rates

Left-behind children dropping out of school perpetuates cyclical poverty. China’s economic expansion over the past 40 years has brought about 800 million people out of poverty, but it has also widened the gap between rural and urban communities. Families in poverty continue to struggle with money, and the number of parents deciding to leave children behind is rising. These children are stuck living with the effects of poverty, and with no parental guidance, they have little means of digging their way out.

Zhang stated that many LBC feel powerless in their situations, which leads to them losing interest in their schooling and dropping out, thus reducing their chances of climbing the employment ladder. Because of the difference in economic opportunities between rural and urban communities, poor children remain poor while the rich stay rich.

Lack of Safety and Health

Because left-behind children do not have parents to protect or guide them, they are more vulnerable to abuse. Forms of abuse include harassment from peers and guardians, sexual abuse and criminality. For example, in 2015 a teacher was sentenced to life in prison for raping 12 of his students, 11 of whom were left-behind children. Many children also experience extremely long walks to and from their schools, some of which take multiple hours. This leaves them alone and vulnerable to anyone passing by.

Living without parental guidance also takes a mental and physical toll on children. Left-behind children are much more likely than non-LBC to have depression, anxiety and behavioral issues due to parental absence. They are also more likely to suffer from chronic loneliness. In a survey of six Chinese provinces, 25% of LBC reported high levels of loneliness, which can worsen mental and physical health. While parental migration offers a chance at economic improvement, child development often deteriorates.

The diets of left-behind children are often also insufficient. According to a 2015 study, left-behind boys consumed more fat and less protein in their diets. This puts them at an increased risk for obesity and stunted growth. Zhang said: “I think the LBC’s diet is worse than non-LBC. Their guardians, usually their grandparents, are mostly very frugal. They also don’t have any idea about healthy diet or nutrition.” Limited nutrition can lead to poor school performance in addition to long-term health risks.

Helping Left-Behind Children

This crisis is well-known, and many organizations are working to aid these millions of children. Save the Children, OneSky and Humanium advocate for and offer direct assistance to left-behind children. So far, Save the Children has helped 310,000 vulnerable Chinese children. Specifically, it provides educational improvements and services to keep them from harm. UNICEF also offers services to LBC in multiple Chinese provinces, including social and emotional development and health administration. UNICEF continues to initiate projects to help these children.

Each year, millions of Chinese children suffer without their parents. The mental and physical health consequences along with the inadequate education they face make their everyday lives an uphill battle. Humanitarian assistance helps thousands of these children, but the causes underlying the crisis continue challenge poverty eradication. 

– Radley Tan
Photo: Flickr