BEIJING — Rural children have been deeply impacted by China’s industrialization and economic rise. Since 2015, more than 169 million rural workers have migrated to cities in China for the economic opportunities.
Because of China’s hukou laws, which class someone as either urban or rural, parents who become migrant workers do not have the same rights as the city dwellers they live alongside. Unable to access public services like healthcare and education in the cities they’ve moved to, they are forced to leave their children in the countryside where they have healthcare and schooling, resulting in children either live alone or with grandparents.
With the mass migration of rural adults to the urban centers to work, the Chinese government began closing remote rural schools to centralize resources. More than 300,000 schools closed, and by 2015 almost three-quarters of the schools had closed. For rural children, this meant that the nearest schools were now hours away, requiring them to either walk hours a day, drop out or board at the school, unable to see their families.
While the situation is bleak for rural children, the Chinese government and its nongovernmental partners have not forgotten them. Scrutiny by news organizations and the release of photos showing the poor conditions of boarding schools and the perilous pathways students traverse to school are focusing global attention on the inequities. In recent years, China has partnered with various NGOs to address the education and rights of children living in the countryside:
In April 2016, the Child Protection Minimum Standards were translated into Chinese and launched with attention from high-level policymakers. NGO World Vision China created training materials to function alongside this, including application guidance and case studies for local humanitarian and child protection actors. Adoption of the Minimum Standards demonstrates the government’s policy shift towards child protection.
Child Welfare Directors are working in rural villages through a partnership between China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and UNICEF. These social workers help register rural children for government subsistence allowances and teach about child welfare policies and social protection measures.
In May 2017, the government increased support for the project, extending it to more than 59,000 villages across the country. Helping children enroll in school, conducting home visits and providing vaccinations, the social workers are reaching previously neglected children.
Not only concerned with children’s access to healthcare and education, the Ministry of Education is partnering with UNICEF for a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) project. For the 70 million rural children left behind by their parents, there is often a great sense of isolation and insecurity alongside a lack of emotional support.
The SEL project will be built into classroom curriculum and seek to teach children how to establish relationships, actively participate and share feelings. Part of the Chinese government’s goal to create child-friendly schools, and the SEL program specifically targets the emotional health of rural children.
-Child-friendly kindergartens are growing more common in rural areas, thanks to the hard work of local educators and a partnership between the Ikea Foundation, Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Training kindergarten educators in Early Childhood Development, these new child-friendly kindergartens teach through songs and games rather than the studying and exams.
While funding for these kindergartens is still inadequate, teachers are receiving more support than before through training, observation visit days to city kindergartens and visits from child education experts. For children, these kindergartens are oases of play and learning.
For girls, Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC) is creating pathways to higher education. Providing high school sponsorship and covering annual university fees and living costs, EGRC seeks to support girls so they don’t have to marry young or drop out to work. Rural girls are among the most disadvantaged by the Chinese education system, facing up to 50 times more competition than their urban counterparts.
Culturally, they are rarely encouraged to go to school and pursue higher education, something EGRC is committed to changing. The organization’s support is more than financial; through a network of older students and alumni, the program builds self-confidence and shows the girls that they too can achieve their dreams like others who have been through university.
A child born in rural China will live a life worlds apart from a child born a Chinese city, but through a genuine commitment to the education and health of rural children, the government and its NGO partners can narrow the gap. These policy initiatives are the first steps to provide rural children with equal access to education and care, and there is so much more that is needed. Rural children are just as deserving of a bright future, and the spotlight on their plight must not let up.
– Irena Huang