A slow awakening | The Economist

AROUND 270m people have left China’s countryside to work in urban areas, many of them entrusting their children to the care of a lone parent, grandparents, relatives or other guardians.

By 2010 there were 61m of these “left-behind children”, according to the All-China Women’s Federation. In a directive released on February 14th, the government has at last shown that it recognises the problems caused by the splintering of so many families. The document acknowledges that there has been a “strong reaction” from the public to the plight of affected children. It describes improving their lot as “urgent”.

That is clearly right. There have been numerous stories in recent years revealing the horrors some of these children endure. Last year four siblings left alone in the south-western province of Guizhou apparently committed suicide by drinking pesticide. Numerous sex-abuse cases involving left-behind children have come to light.

The new proposals look sensible enough: minors may not be abandoned entirely; local institutions such as schools and hospitals must do more to notify the authorities of cases of abuse or neglect; social workers should monitor the welfare of left-behind children. Sadly, however, the government’s suggested remedies will achieve little. They largely replicate recent laws and policies designed to protect children (not just left-behind ones), which have been almost universally unenforced. It is already illegal to allow minors to live alone, for example. There is no indication that the new recommendations will be made law or implemented any more rigorously.

The new scheme mentions the importance of giving migrants urban hukou, or household-registration certificates, which are needed to gain access to public services such as education and health care. Most migrants leave their children in the countryside because they do not have such papers. In December the government announced plans to make it easier for migrants to gain urban hukou privileges. But few casual labourers are likely to fulfil the still-onerous conditions that must be met to qualify.

A study published last year by researchers at Stanford University found that among more than 140,000 children assessed in areas such as education, health and nutrition, left-behind ones performed as well as or better than those living in the countryside with both parents. But both kinds of children lagged far behind those who grow up in cities.

Source: A slow awakening | The Economist

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