No rest for children of the drought

Children in rural NSW are waking up before the sun to help their families survive Australia’s crippling drought.  

For some children, it means missing out on school, giving up sport and recreational activities and losing much needed sleep. They are as young as eight-years-old and already, they are working longer days than some adults. But you’ll rarely hear them complain.

“In a drought everyone’s having the same problems, so you just don’t need to talk about it,” Sarah*, a year 11 student told UNICEF Australia.

There is a prevalent stoic attitude among farmers when it comes to times of great stress. What was clear during conversations with students in schools across NSW’s New England region was that they modelled this attitude emitted by their parents, grandparents and community.

There is always someone doing it worse. There is always someone doing it worse.

“People definitely don’t show what’s happening behind the scenes. They’re like a different person when they’re around others. Like, when people say ‘how are you?’ everyone says, ‘Oh, yeah, good yourself?’. It’s never like, ‘oh no, I’m not doing very well’,” Thomas*, a year 9 student said.

Beneath this shield of stoicism, children are struggling from significant pressures. They told us of the emotional toll of growing up prematurely and described the reality of having responsibilities beyond their years with workloads both on and off the farm increasing substantially as a result of the drought.

“The problem is, you get home and you bust your arse to feed stock and that, all night until about 10 o’clock, and then you’ve got to do homework. And that’s the hardest thing. You’re tired and you’re up until 12 and you’re tired the next day. So it just keeps piling up. It’s like a domino effect and it just gets worse and worse,” Rebecca*, a high school student said.

An overwhelming message shared in these conversations was a lack of understanding of the pressure and difficulties these children continue to face.

Many students, including primary-aged children, reported having to take multiply days off school to help out at home – something that has also been noted by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. For some high school students, parents have decided to keep the younger child at home because the older one is in year 11 and 12.

There is no rest for children of farming families. While the federal and state governments have taken significant steps to ensure drought affected communities are supported, we believe more can be done to support children and young people.

These children want to be heard and they want to be involved in the discussions and solutions. Children are being used for labour, they are making ‘adult’ decisions every day and are given ‘adult’ responsibilities so their insights are informed and valuable.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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