Helping the left behind children

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 12:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 1:07am

Children need parents' love and guidance; without them, they will grow up confused, angry and lost. The eldest of the four youngsters in Guizhou province who took their lives with poison in despair at being abandoned did not want that fate. The pesticide the boy and his three sisters drank brought to a swift end months of misery. It has taken the tragedy to remind officials of the grim reality faced by the nation's millions-strong "left behind generation".

The children, aged between five and 13, had no-one to take care of them after their father left their home in the Bijie city village of Cizhu in March for a job in Guangdong. Their mother had gone to the province in 2013. In a suicide letter, the boy told that "death has been my dream for years". Just how many of the more than 61 million others in mostly poor, rural parts of the country whose parents have left them for work in big cities have similar thoughts is not known; 3.4 per cent have no relatives taking care of them and must fend for themselves.

It is not what is expected of the world's second-biggest economy. But the jobs are not evenly distributed and many inland areas, particularly Guizhou, are rife with poverty and have poorly developed social services. Economic migration to the rich eastern provinces where the best job prospects lie is inevitable. But the strict household registration system, hukou, makes it difficult for children to accompany parents.

Premier Li Keqiang has ordered a nationwide review of welfare efforts to prevent another such tragedy. Two village officials have been dismissed, three others suspended and six more, among them the principal and a teacher at the primary school where three of the children studied, are being investigated. But cases of children living in intolerable circumstances are not unusual, particularly in Bijie; in November 2012, five homeless boys in another village died of smoke inhalation after lighting a fire in a garbage bin to keep warm. Sackings and disciplinary measures followed that incident, but the message obviously had little impact.

Change has to be led by authorities. Non-governmental groups have a role to play in filling gaps in essential services, yet are distrusted by officials, who view them as vehicles for foreign interference. Deeper hukou reform is essential. Ensuring migrant workers have the same right to public services - importantly education - as the people in the places they move to would give less reason to leave children behind.