Left-behind children in China
The left-behind children in China (simplified Chinese: 留守儿童; traditional Chinese: 留守兒童; pinyin: liúshǒu'értóng), also called "stay-at-home children", are children who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas. In many cases, these children are taken care of by relatives, usually by grandparents or family friends, who remain in the rural regions. These children are often categorized as "left-behind" because the rural regions they reside in often lack social and economic infrastructures that are more readily available and accessible in urban areas.
Many of these children face developmental and emotional challenges as a result of the limited interaction with their biological parents. As of 2017, there are approximately 69 million children left behind. The lack of infrastructure and parental support have led to a host of additional challenges for left-behind children like quality education, physical well-being, and healthy social relationships.
Owing to the country's Hukou (household registration) system, Chinese left-behind children are confronted with issues regarding public school enrollment. As problems concerning education have multiplied, some cities have implemented a school enrollment point system, which hampers chances of migrant and left-behind children to acquire the learning they need. Combined with China's “point system for household registration,” a host of complications for migrant parents and left-behind children have been created.
Most migrants leave their rural homes to seek work in urban areas and in industries that require lower levels of education such as manufacturing, construction, mining, and the service industry. These migrants often leave their children behind due to the economic and social restraints involved in migrating with children. One constraint is the high standard of living in most cities, making it difficult for parents to support themselves and their children. Likewise, the Hukou system prevents rural children from receiving social benefits in urban regions like education and healthcare. The left-behind children of migrant parents are often under the guardianship of grandparents and extended kin members.
Drivers of rural-to-urban migration
The conversion of agricultural land for commercial use, along with the continuous and comprehensive development of the Reform and Open Door Policy in China that encourages rural peasants to migrate, increased the unemployment rate among rural workers. This prompted a growing number of rural peasants to leave their hometowns and search for better-paying jobs in urban areas.
With the increasing unemployment rate and labor demands in cities, rural-to-urban migration was exacerbated as the Hukou system slackened. The Hukou system was enacted in the 1950s intending to control the mass movement of rural-urban migrants in China. The Hukou system is a household registration system which determines what social benefits (education, housing and medical services) a person may receive. When residing outside of the original place of origin, such benefits and services will not be awarded. The Hukou system prevented many families from moving to urban areas. The reforms implemented in the 1980s eased the registration system to promote development in China.
Mental and physical health
Approximately 50% of the "left-behind" children in China go through melancholy and apprehension, in comparison to 30% of their urban peers. Likewise, they are more likely to suffer from mood swings and trauma. They typically have inferiority complexes, lower sense of worth and lesser self-confidence. Most of them lack a sense of security and are too afraid or anxious to interact with other people.
Physical well-being is also significantly lower among left-behind children as they were more likely to have an unhealthy diet, lower levels of physical activity, and more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol. These particular habits have contributed to higher rates of stunted growth and unhealthy body weights.
Countless left-behind children become reluctant and unenthusiastic to go to school. Many become truants and some of them drop out of school. The children's lackluster attitude towards school restricts their social mobility and keeps them the cycle of poverty. Generally, these children have lower educational goals and are less likely to complete compulsory education. They likewise show consistent low scores on primary school exams which potentially deter chances of a better future.
These children also have difficulties with student-teacher relationships. Additionally, when parents migrate, these children's participation in housework and farming increases, leading to lesser time spent for academic pursuits.
A 2012 study using longitudinal data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey concluded that "parental migration has not given children left behind a significant advantage in educational prospects as their parents had hoped." Adverse educational impacts are especially evident for boys.
To encourage educational parity and provide equal opportunities at the same time assure migrant children's right to acquire essential education, a unified national student registration system has been set up in primary and secondary schools, and procedure for school transfers can now be conducted online.
In 2011, a rural school lunch program serving 20 million students daily was implemented.
Data-driven analysis to determine the most effective interventions in rural education and child welfare is being developed by Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Science's Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, in Beijing have partnered with Stanford's Rural Education Action Program (REAP). Studies indicated that although rural children had good motor skills, benefited from school lunch programs, and responded to caregiver coaching with their parents, caregiver coaching with their grandparents had little effect. A randomized trial of early childhood development centers in villages in Shaanxi Province is expected to start yielding data in 2018.
The separation between parents and left-behind children poses a challenge to their social relationships. Left-behind children are more introverted than those who grow up with their parents and are more susceptible to being bullied at school.
Left-behind children suffer more major injuries than those who stay with their parents. In 2012, 5 left-behind children died from carbon dioxide inhalation after lighting a fire in rubbish bin for warmth. In 2014, 12 girls were threatened and raped by their school teachers. and in 2015, 4 left-behind children living under domestic violence attempted suicide by drinking pesticide. After the 2015 tragedy, local government officials in Bijie, which has 260,000 left-behind children, issued a request to parents to return home.
Cell phone addiction
Left-behind children spent longer time on mobile games, 19% of these spend over six hours on games, two times more than those who are with their parents. The parents fail to recognize their child's extreme phone use as an issue. To them, phones serve as “babysitters” to calm the children down and stay away from trouble.
The severity of the negative consequences experienced by left-behind children in China depend on the child's age, gender, and family's economic resources:
Children left behind at the age of three have emotional issues while children left at the age of nine have decreased in pro-social behaviors. Additionally, children who were left in early stages in life showed lower levels of life satisfaction. These reports suggest that the younger a child is, the more likely that they suffer psychologically than children left at an older age.
It is common for caregivers of left-behind children to place more restrictions on girls' social activities than those of boys. The practice is an attempt to protect female children, because females are considered more vulnerable than males in many rural Chinese societies. Additionally, the level of housework required by left-behind female children increases when their parents migrate, replacing male children as the main caretaker of the household.
Difficult economic conditions often result in poor quality care for left-behind children. When caregivers lack the financial resources to afford school fees, nutritious food, and other basic needs, left-behind children are likely to face challenges with well-being. Lower-income households are also more likely to require left-behind children to engage in farm work, resulting in exclusion from social and academic activities.
Government and private-sector initiatives
“Guidance on how to make best use of social work professionals in the protection of rural left-behind children” has been jointly issued by the Ministries of Civil Affairs, Education and Finance, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League and the All-China Women's Federation, for the use of social work professionals who work with rural left-behind children. The tasks defined in the document include:
- assisting in the rescue and protection work
- carrying out family education guidance
- actively providing social care services
The policy aims to
- strengthen the training and development of professionals
- actively cultivate and develop social work service institutions
- promote the construction of social work service stations in villages and towns, and
- increase the employment of social work professionals in relevant units.
Another initiative from the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) has been placement of unsupervised left-behind children in the custody of guardians. Since the campaign commenced in November 2016, 16,000 left-behind children who had dropped out of school have resumed their education, and 177,800 who were previously unregistered have been registered on national household records.
A national information management system for left-behind children has been launched. The system enables professionals to share data about the child subsistence allowance, impoverished households and people with disabilities. The system now has data on 1.3 million children with disabilities and 110,000 children of impoverished families.
In Southwest China's Guizhou Province, left-behind rural children use smart wristbands with GPS for tracking and protection. The local governments of Bijie city and Qianxinan Buyi, the Miao autonomous prefecture in Guizhou, spent approximately 24 million yuan (3.6 million U.S. dollars) to provide smart wristbands for more than 100,000 left-behind children in primary schools. The wristband has a GPS locator and is linked to local police databases which allows children to report emergencies.
Childrens' Clubs offering "play and educational activities under the care and supervision of local volunteers" have shown positive outcomes. A drop-in childrens' center in Xichehe serves 200 children. A 100-square-meter children's center was built with sponsorship from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) and the Sichuan Provincial Communist Youth League. Women between ages 19-55 are trained to serve as the center's companion mothers. Filled with picture books, sports equipment, and tables, the center is often crowded with children on weekends.
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