Left Behind Children in China

China’s rapid economic development has caused a wide gap between rich and poor that has forced millions of workers to emigrate from rural areas to the country’s main cities. Since 1978, China has experienced the largest internal migration in history. The phenomenon of left-behind children is not unique to China, since other countries in Asia have a similar phenomenon. However, in no country are the numbers as high as in China. It is estimated that there are in China more than 61 million left-behind children, about one-fifth of the children in China, 40 percent of whom are under age five.

As a result of this migration pattern, the children left behind remain under the care of relatives, mostly grandparents, family friends and, in some cases they have to fend for themselves. Because often the caretakers do not have the physical strength or knowledge to take adequate care of these children, they suffer developmental, behavioral and other kind of problems that need to be properly addressed.

Traditionally, migrant workers from the countryside travel to cities on the East coast of China and visit their families once a year during the spring festival. However, many children do not get to see their parents annually. This situation exacerbates the problems children have in schools, in their relationships and even later in life. It is estimated that approximately almost a third of the nation’s children growing up in rural areas are growing up without one or both parents and more than half of those are left by both parents.

To mitigate the problem, the government has created schools for migrant children and launched a program that gave children left behind the opportunity to travel to the cities and spend their summer holidays with their parents. However, migrant schools have lower standards than regular schools, and as a consequence the education they provide does not have the same quality as regular schools.

Although the migrant’s cheap labor has fueled China’s spectacular economic growth, this has come with a high cost to the children, and to the parents themselves who, to save as much money as possible, tend to live in squalid quarters with many people sharing one room without any comforts.

In recent years, the difficult situation of left-behind children is attracting increasing attention. Many childhood experts warn of the psychological and emotional problems of children raised without their parents. One of the consequences is that they don’t do well at school and frequently have behavioral problems that may lead in some cases to commit suicide.

It is estimated that as many as 57 percent of left-behind children suffer from a variety of psychological problems, and they account for 70 percent of juvenile delinquency cases. In addition, children coming from rural areas are barred from public schools in the cities and are also devoid of medical care, unless their parents have residency permits.

China’s hukou, or household registration system, prevents rural children from attending most legal, urban schools. Although Chinese children are entitled to nine years of free public education, they must pay steep fines if they enroll in schools outside the town or village where they are registered. In addition, those living in the cities discriminate against people coming from rural areas, whom they consider uneducated and of vulgar manners.

Stories reported in the media have shown that left-behind children are more frequently subject to bullying and sexual and physical abuse. At home, they tend to suffer more frequently of burns and other accidents. Although their grandparents offer their children all their loving support, in many cases there is a wide cultural gap that hinders their understanding of the children’s needs and concerns.

Although some non-governmental organizations have been trying to help left-behind children overcome their emotional problems by giving them support, the number of such NGOs is too small to mitigate such a large scale problem. What is needed is a comprehensive government plan to deal with this problem. Three ministries: Civil Affairs, Education and Public Security will carry out a joint survey on the situation of left-behind children in rural areas, which will allow to draw a plan for improving their situation.

Such a plan should include reforming the hukou household registration system to make education and social services more easily available to migrant rural children who want to join their parents. In addition, grandparents could receive classes at the local schools on how best to identify and address their grandchildren’s problems.

The government has started to train, with some promising results, “barefoot social workers” who can deal with the most common social and emotional problems of left-behind children. Improving these children’s quality of life is a necessary step for the development of a healthy Chinese society.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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