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Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor for Children: Understanding the Determinative Factors Among Rural Households in Bangladesh

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  • University of Sussex and Coventry University

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This research is concerned with understanding the factors behind the trade-off between child labor and child schooling, given the well-documented links between the two. It examines parents' behavior in their decision-making on their children's schooling or practicing child labor. Depending on qualitative research methods including 28 semi-structured interviews and two focus group discussions conducted in the rural areas of Bangladesh in 2020, this study reveals the following: subsistence needs compel households, particularly the ultra-poor and the female-headed, to trade off child labor with schooling; due to higher demand of labor, parents engage their children into work instead of schooling; parents of labor-intensive occupations tend to trade off child labor with schooling; sexual division of labor remains obvious; finally, credit constraints and cultural beliefs have negative impacts on parental decision-making on child schooling. Interventions aiming to reduce child labor and increase schooling in these rural areas must remain mindful of the socio-economic and cultural needs.
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ORIGINAL RESEARCH
published: 14 June 2022
doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2022.839231
Frontiers in Sociology | www.frontiersin.org 1June 2022 | Volume 7 | Article 839231
Edited by:
Minela Kerla,
The Association of Online Educators,
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Reviewed by:
Arjan de Haan,
International Development Research
Centre, Canada
Mary Arends-Kuenning,
University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, United States
*Correspondence:
Md Mahmudul Hoque
mhmoni24@gmail.com;
mh496@sussex.ac.uk
ORCID:
Rafiqul Islam
orcid.org/0000-0003-4811-4536
Md Mahmudul Hoque
orcid.org/0000-0002-5263-6145
These authors have contributed
equally to this work
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Work, Employment and Organizations,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Sociology
Received: 19 December 2021
Accepted: 16 May 2022
Published: 14 June 2022
Citation:
Islam R and Hoque MM (2022)
Trade-Off Between Schooling and
Labor for Children: Understanding the
Determinative Factors Among Rural
Households in Bangladesh.
Front. Sociol. 7:839231.
doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2022.839231
Trade-Off Between Schooling and
Labor for Children: Understanding
the Determinative Factors Among
Rural Households in Bangladesh
Rafiqul Islam †‡ and Md Mahmudul Hoque*†‡
Ministry of Public Administration, Dhaka, Bangladesh
This research is concerned with understanding the factors behind the trade-off between
child labor and child schooling, given the well-documented links between the two.
It examines parents’ behavior in their decision-making on their children’s schooling
or practicing child labor. Depending on qualitative research methods including 28
semi-structured interviews and two focus group discussions conducted in the rural areas
of Bangladesh in 2020, this study reveals the following: subsistence needs compel
households, particularly the ultra-poor and the female-headed, to trade off child labor
with schooling; due to higher demand of labor, parents engage their children into work
instead of schooling; parents of labor-intensive occupations tend to trade off child labor
with schooling; sexual division of labor remains obvious; finally, credit constraints and
cultural beliefs have negative impacts on parental decision-making on child schooling.
Interventions aiming to reduce child labor and increase schooling in these rural areas
must remain mindful of the socio-economic and cultural needs.
Keywords: child labor, trade-off, schooling, factors, parents, rural households, Bangladesh
INTRODUCTION
International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 182 illustrates two kinds of adverse effects of
child labor—one is the direct effect on the child’s physical, mental, or social development and
another is the indirect effect on the child’s schooling (ILO, 1999). Several studies related to child
labor also highlight its effect on schooling (Binder and Scrogin, 1999; Ravallion and Wodon, 2000;
Ray, 2000; Parikh and Sadoulet, 2005). This research focuses on the trading-off between labor and
schooling for children in a developing country context to further this understanding. Although the
harmful effects of child labor are generally acknowledged by adults, parents in poor and developing
economic contexts are often induced by its monetary returns. Parents often find it hard to bear
the costs of schooling (Delap, 2001). Formal schooling is considered a vital contributor to human
skills and capital (Mussida et al., 2019; Posso, 2020). Target 4.1 of the 2015 Global Development
Agenda calls for ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary
and secondary education (Boeren, 2019). However, the growing number of school dropouts in
developing countries remains a global concern (UNESCO, 2015; Hossain and Akter, 2019; Sarker
et al., 2019). This qualitative investigation explores the household-level factors in the rural areas of
Bangladesh to explain why parents trade off children’s schooling with labor.
Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
Previous studies have used various lenses to focus on the issue.
Some works analyzed household demographic factors (Grootaert
and Kanbur, 1995; Basu and Van, 1998; Salmon, 2005; Huisman
and Smits, 2009), while others extensively focused on socio-
cultural factors and the intra-household demand and supply
of labor (Delap, 2001; Bhalotra and Heady, 2003; Emerson
and Souza, 2003; Mukherjee and Pal, 2016; Hoque, 2021a).
Several empirical findings indicate that parents engaged in labor-
intensive occupations tend to trade off schooling with child labor
in various localized contexts (Bhalotra and Heady, 2003; Haile
and Haile, 2012; Yokying and Floro, 2020).
A few empirical studies have also examined the intra-
household decision-making regarding children’s work and labor
in rural and urban areas in Bangladesh, and recognized parental
occupation as a significant determinant (Amin et al., 2006; Shafiq,
2007; Tariquzzaman and Hossain, 2009). Drawing from the
aforementioned works, this study contributes to the empirical
literature by focusing on the parents’ occupations in explaining
their decisions regarding trade-offs between schooling and
the labor of children in rural areas in Bangladesh. Assuming
that parents who are engaged in labor-intensive occupations
in low-income families in rural areas tend to engage their
children in child labor, this study examines whether government
interventions influence the respective parental decisions. To our
knowledge, no qualitative empirical studies have purely focused
on this issue. Based on this assumption, this research was led by
two questions: (i) What are the factors that influence households’
decisions in trading off between schooling and child labor in rural
areas of Bangladesh? (ii) What government and non-government
interventions are perceived to be effective? This study adopted
qualitative primary research to address these questions. This
paper is organized as follows. The next section outlines the
review of literature followed by the research methodology. The
subsequent section delineates the findings and analysis. The
final section concludes with highlighting the key implications of
this study.
LITERATURE REVIEW
Factors of Child Labor and Schooling
Child labor is generally considered harmful as it takes away a
child’s childhood and inhibits their social mobility. International
Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as “work that is
mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful
to children and interferes with their schooling” (ILO, 2002, p.
15). The latest global estimates state that about 160 million
children aged 5–1763 million girls and 97 million boys—were
engaged in child labor globally in 2020 (ILO and UNICEF, 2021).
Three major international conventions that set the standards
for child employment/labor are—ILO Convention No. 138 on
Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in 1973, ILO’s
Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, 1999 (No. 182) and
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989
(UNCRC). Following these conventions, child labor was seen
as an unaccepable practice until the mid-1990s when emerging
evidence started to back up a common understanding that not
all work was harmful for children, and that employment in
certain, safe kinds of work could be beneficial to achieve survival
level of consumptions and skills (Rogers and Swinnerton, 2002).
For instance, Mergos (1992) discovered that children had a
positive economic contribution to farm households through
peasant agriculture work in the Philipines. Bachman (2000)
argues that stopping child labor may bring a halt to the survival
incomes of many poor families. Recognizing schooling as a
fundamental right and need of children, several studies have
idenfiied child labor as a major obstacle in low-income family
contexts (Ravallion and Wodon, 2000; Ray, 2000; Parikh and
Sadoulet, 2005). Working hours was also found responsible for
reducing children’s leisure and outdoor activities (Binder and
Scrogin, 1999).
Parental and household behavior regarding sending a child
to school depends on a wide range of factors. Theoretical
and empirical studies have interrogated the trade-off between
schooling and labor mainly in low-income contexts. Basu and
Van’s (1998) luxary axiom states that a family engages in labor
only when the imcome of adult family members is very low
(Swinnerton and Rogers, 1999). Poverty was identified as a
major driver of child labor. Jensen and Nielsen’s (1997) study
revealed that parents could not send their children to school
in Zambia due to lack of monetary resources. Buchmann and
Brakewood (2000) have drawn similar observations in Thailand
and Kenya. Shafiq (2007) and Malik (2013) revealed the trade-off
between school enrolment and child labor due to poverty in India
and Bangladesh, respectively. However, evidence from various
contexts also commonly indicates that the supply of child labor
depends on the wage, demand, and opportunities in the market
(Parikh and Sadoulet, 2005; Roy et al., 2015; Mukherjee and Pal,
2016; Tama et al., 2018).
Besides poverty, several other factors drive households to
trade-off between schooling and child labor. Demographic
factors like children’s age, number of children and family
members, and absence of a parent influence the decision
(Tariquzzaman and Hossain, 2009; Malik, 2013; Khan and Lyon,
2015). Duraisamy’s (2000) research based in India revealed
that with age, children’s participation in work increases, and
schooling decreases. So, in other words, an older child is at
more risk in trading-off schooling with child labor (Ray, 2000).
In Bangladeshs rural areas, meanwhile, schooling of older boys
depends on the number of children. If the number is high, the
probability of schooling is low as the older siblings have to take
care of the younger ones (Amin et al., 2006). However, several
empirical researches conducted in Bangladesh showed that in
many cases the older children often combine work and schooling
(Alam et al., 2008; Khanam, 2008; Quattri and Watkins, 2019).
It is well-established in the literature that when schools are
close to where the children live, this may increase study hours
and school attendance (Jensen and Nielsen, 1997; Huisman
and Smits, 2009). Ray (2000) found that infrastructure such as
the availability of classrooms can reduce child labor hours by
increasing school hours.
Social and cultural factors are also critical. Delap (2001) argues
that besides the economic factors, child labor crucially involves
societal norms related to gender and culture. Children’s sex,
age, and place of residence appear to play important roles in
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
determining the type of work they perform in communities
across rural and urban Bangladesh (Delap, 2000; Salmon, 2005;
Tariquzzaman and Hossain, 2009; UCW, 2011; Hoque, 2021b).
Perhaps interestingly, there are still some dichotomies in the
literature. For example, Khanam (2005, 2008) observed that girls
in rural areas must combine household work with schooling
to a much greater extent than boys in Bangladesh’s rural areas,
while in contrast, Shafiq (2007) found no discrimination based
on gender in rural households in Bangladesh.
Parents’ Occupation and Education
Parental characteristics (i.e., occupation, education, type of
employment, and so forth) play an important role in deciding
how their children will spend their time. Evidence suggests that
most children are employed by their parents for domestic help
or to work in family farms and businesses (Fors, 2012; ILO
UNICEF, 2021). Parikh and Sadoulet (2005) found in Brazil
that self-employed or employer parents engage their children
into labor more than employee parents. This indicates that
availability or opportunities of work is a determinant of child
labor. In Bangladesh, parents in non-labor-intensive occupations
generally do not send their children to work, and wealthier
rural households in Bangladesh can keep their children in school
by bearing the opportunity cost (Amin et al., 2006). However,
Bhalotra and Heady (2003) explained how the opposite could
also happen. They called this the “wealth-paradox” phenomenon,
which is that asset-rich households may engage their children
into labor more than the asset-poor households. Due to credit
constraints, asset-rich households may not be able to hire labor
for their farm, so they may deploy their children into their
farms. Several empirical research findings support this paradox
(Buchmann and Brakewood, 2000; Ravallion and Wodon, 2000;
Baschieri and Falkingham, 2009). Rammohan (2012) found in
India that households that own agricultural lands usually let
their children combine schooling and work; still, they may pull
the children out of school during the harvest season when the
demand for labor is higher. Salmon (2005) states that children
are generally employed as unpaid labor in the agricultural sector,
which indicates the high demand for child labor in labor-
intensive occupations. Similarly, Rahman et al. (2010) found that
children in rural Bangladesh are more likely to work in their
parents’ occupations in the agricultural sector.
In poor communities, households or families with disabled or
illiterate parents are more likely to opt for generating income by
engaging their children in child labor (Edmonds, 2007; Webbink
et al., 2012). Several studies show that parents’ education has a
positive impact on child schooling and negative impact on child
labor in Bangladesh (Ravallion and Wodon, 2000; Khanam, 2005;
Shafiq, 2007; Ahmed and Ray, 2011; Hossain and Akter, 2019).
Ahmed and Ray (2011) reveal that parents’ level of education
affects the trade-off decision-making across genders; however,
a mother’s education shows a significant inclination toward
educating a girl child. Based on data collected from two districts
of Bangladesh Hossain and Akter (2019) observe that children of
educated parents left school less than less-educated parents.
Determinants of Parents’ Decision-Making
on Schooling or Child Labor
The return from investment of human capital is greater than the
return from investing in physical assets (Schultz, 1989). However,
when it comes to decision-making, parents often favor having
their children combining child labor with informal learning
(e.g., home education, religious studies, NGO-run non-formal
education). Parental beliefs about the returns from schooling
in forming human capital such as skills, knowledge, and health
remain a primary determinant (Mukherjee and Pal, 2016). Many
parents believe formal education fails to ensure social mobility for
their children (Bazin and Bhukuth, 2009). While analyzing urban
child labor among poor households in Bangladesh, Tariquzzaman
and Hossain (2009) identified parental perception of the low
returns from formal education as a significant influence. Poor
quality educational provision, low attainment and high dropout
rates among poor children are the key factors behind this
perception (Tariquzzaman and Hossain, 2009). Some other
recognized critical determinants are the distance of schools,
low return on human capital investment, large indirect cost
of schooling, and low quality of educational facilities (Jensen
and Nielsen, 1997). Huisman and Smits (2009) studied 220,000
children in 340 districts of 30 developing countries to find out
household and district level determinants of primary school
enrolment and found that parental decisions on children’s
schooling are influenced by socio-economic and household
demographic characteristics, including parents’ education, level
of wealth, level of occupation, and gender.
Basu and Tzannatos (2003) argue that for many households,
child leisure or schooling is a luxury good, and if household
income is not sufficient, families cannot afford to keep a child
out of productive work or send them to school. Thus, child
labor is often a substitute for adult labor. Diamond and Fayed
(1998) discovered substitutability of adult and child labor in
Egypt, and observed females are substitutes for children, but
males are complements. In the case of Bangladesh, Salmon
(2005) found that children and mothers are substitutes for each
other as children of employed mothers were mostly working in
households. Hosen et al. (2010) highlight that many poor and
vulnerable parents in Bangladesh often have no alternatives to
trade-off child education for paid or unpaid child work.
69.3% of rural parents engage in child labor to increase
family income, 4.3% to repay loans, 3.7% for not being able to
bear educational expenses, and 4.7% for children’s unwillingness
to study.
Intra-Household Demand and Supply of
Child Labor
It is generally agreed that higher school expenditure (fees and
other expenses) may induce parents to pull their children out
from school (Sabates et al., 2013). However, due to seasonal
variation in agricultural activities, particularly in Bangladesh,
the adults of the families may be engaged in non-agricultural
work to increase income. This may create the substitution
effect on the children in the household activities when the
adults are busy working outside (Ahmed and Ray, 2011).
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
Arends-Kuenning and Amin (2004) revealed that boys are mostly
affected by seasonal agricultural labor demand as they are pulled
out of school to meet this increased demand. This usually
interrupts their school attendance and performance and thus
may result into them dropping out. However, households usually
tend to hire adult labor for family farming, which creates an
opportunity for children to go to school. But, due to the moral
hazards of managing hired adult labor, households may prefer
their own family’s labor as family members (especially children)
are easy to supervise, and acquainted with the farm (Bhalotra and
Heady, 2003). Moreover, levels of household indebtedness may
have a negative correlation with child schooling. For example,
if a household is in high debt, to pay it off, the adults of
the households are likely to need to work longer hours which
may create a necessity for children, particularly girls, to help in
domestic chores (Ahmed and Ray, 2011).
CHILD LABOR AND SCHOOLING
SITUATION IN BANGLADESH
In Bangladesh, the government provides the mainstream formal
primary and secondary education for all public-school students.
Primary education consists of a 5-year cycle, and secondary also
has a 5-year cycle. The official age of entry into primary school is 6
years, although enrolment at later ages is also quite common. The
country introduced compulsory primary education in 1992 along
with free textbooks and tuition fee exemption for all children
up to grade 5 and up to grade 8 for girls (Ahmed and Ray,
2011). According to Annual Primary School Census 2019, overall
enrolment rate in primary school was 97.74–97.65% for girls,
and 98.01% for boys. The overall student attendance rate was
88.66%; the primary education cycle completion rate for girls was
83.20%, for boys, this was 80.80%. The overall drop-out rate stood
at 17.9%—for girls, it was 15.7%, and for boys, 19.20% (GoB,
2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened the
situation (Emon et al., 2020; Hoque, 2020). An academic year
of schooling has 220 school days. Because of the government
incentives (i.e., free textbooks, free tuition, free food), the parents
can compensate for the foregone earnings of their children (if
they had worked instead), which inspires them to send their
children to school.
Bangladesh Child Labor Survey 2013 estimates that the
number of total working children aged 5-17 was 3.45 million
(male 2.10 million and female 1.35 million), and the number
of children engaged in labor was 1.7 million (BBS, 2015). The
survey defined the terms “working children” and “child labor”
based on the principles of the 18th International Conference
on Labor Statisticians and Bangladesh Labor Act 2006.1The
number of children aged between 14 and 17 engaged in child
labor was 1.21 million. The national survey further informs that
about 67% of child labor takes place in the rural areas, and of
the children employed, 29.9% were engaged in the agricultural
sector, while 33.3% were engaged in the manufacturing industry.
1Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 defines a child as a person who has not completed
his fourteenth year of age. However, the National Child Labour Survey considered
the age group of 5–17 as children.
Among rural child labor, 63% of children were not attending
school during the reporting, 8.4% had never attended school,
and the remaining 28.6% combined work and schooling. During
the survey, households reported various reasons causing child
laborers to drop out of school. As Table 1 shows, 36% of child
laborers dropped schooling to support their family income,
15.1% for not being able to afford the expenses, and only 16.1%
left school to start working. Notably, among three age groups (6–
11, 12–13, 14–17), more than 1 in 4 children aged 6–11 dropped
school to start working, and a significant of children aged 6–13
reported “no school nearby” as a reason for their dropout.
The report conveys Bangladeshs national definition of child
labor as:
“Child labor is paid or unpaid work that is mentally, socially
or morally conjugated with danger to children or the infliction
of harm to children; activities that deprive children of the
opportunity to go to school, or in addition to schoolwork and
household responsibilities, loads additional work done in other
places, which enslaves children and separates from their families;
work performed by a child under the minimum age for entering
into employment relationship with the employer according to the
labor legislation of Bangladesh.” (BBS, 2015, p. 16)
Bangladesh has been in active collaboration with ILO-IPEC
initiatives through adopting the elimination of child labor its
policy documents such as “The National Child Labor Elimination
Policy, 2010” focus on the planning and implementation of
various short, medium and long-term strategies and programmes
for withdrawing working children, particularly from the worst
forms of child labor, from the workforce, and getting them
out of the vicious cycle of poverty and to get them back to
school (GoB, 2010). The government has enacted some laws
and legal provisions in relation to ILO Convention No. 182 and
UNCRC, which include the Constitutional provisions (Art. 18,
20, 34), Penal Code (Secs. 366, 372, 373, 374), Children’s Act,
2013; Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act,
2000 (Sec. 8, 9)—amended in 2003, Suppression of Immoral
Traffic Act, 1933, Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006 (Chapter VII),
and the Employment of Children Act, 1938 (ILO guidance). The
Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006 outlaws the employment of any child
<14 years of age and bans anyone below 18 in some categorized
list of hazardous works (GoB, 2015). Notably, on 22 March 2022,
the country, as a part of the government’s commitment under the
National Action Plan on the Labor Sector of Bangladesh (2021–
2026), ratified ILO’s Minimum Age Convention keeping 14 as the
minimum age of entry to work (ILO, 2022).
METHODOLOGY
The review of literature has illustrated various kinds of
determinants of parents’ decision-making on schooling or child
labor, luxury and substitution axioms, intra-household demand
and supply of child labor, opportunity cost of child labor and
schooling, the relationship between human capital formation
and child labor, and the picture of child labor and schooling
in Bangladesh. However, households decision-making patterns
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
TABLE 1 | Distribution of child labor by the reasons of being dropped out, by age group in Bangladesh (Source: BBS, 2015, p. 80).
Reasons 6–11 12–13 14–17 Total
%
Failed examination 6.1 3.4 4.5 4.7
Not interested 8.3 10.2 16.2 15.0
To start working 26.2 15.1 14.6 16.1
To get married 0.0 0.0 3.6 3.0
To support family income 10.6 13.6 16.1 15.3
Parents did not want 8.1 0.0 3.8 4.2
No school nearby 17.8 34.5 2.0 5.0
Could not afford 20.9 20.9 38.9 36
Others 2.0 2.2 0.4 0.7
Total 100 100 100 100
about child labor or schooling and the impact of parents’ labor-
intensive occupation in rural contexts of Bangladesh have not yet
been adequately explored with qualitative insights.
Research Design
This study aims to analyze the factors behind Bangladeshi
parents’ decision-making on whether to send their child to school
or to work. The researchers largely depended on interpretivism
(i.e., the reality is multi-layered and complex) to answer the
research question. Interpretive research unpacks how people
‘feel about the world and make sense of their lives from their
particular vantage points’ (King et al., 2019). The qualitative
research strategy has dictated the in-depth case studies and
interviews which the authors conducted during their fieldwork
in Bangladesh. Debout (2016) notes that a qualitative case study
permits an investigation to explore various interacting factors
resulting in a complex phenomenon. Such studies cognize the
subjective meaning that individuals bring to their complicated
and multi-layered situations (De Vaus, 2001). Understanding
the attitudes, beliefs, and views of the parents regarding
the trade-off between child schooling and labor necessitated
the exploration of the factors responsible for their respective
decision-making behaviors.
Bangladesh has a large population (about 160 million)
dispersed all over the country (Tama et al., 2021). The authors
intentionally chose to conduct their fieldwork in two Upazilas
(i.e., small geographical and sub-district administrative units)
named Bahubal and Nabinagar which are in the districts of
Habiganj and Brahmanbaria, respectively (see Figure 1). These
areas reside in the eastern part of the country. Reportedly many
children in these areas are engaged in paid work in both the
formal and informal sectors (GoB, 2020).
As shown in Table 2, the 2011 government estimates report
that Nabinagar has 220 schools for 94,871 households, while
in Bahubal138 are located for 37,334 households. Children in
these areas are generally engaged in labor in small businesses,
agricultural and tea farms, welding, transports and so forth.
The literacy rate of Nabinagar is 68.62%, while that of Bahubal
is 39.4% (GoB, 2020). The representing two districts have a
significant difference in geographical features. While most of
FIGURE 1 | The study areas (illustration: Authors’ own).
Brahmanbaria is agricultural plain land, Habiganj has hills, tea
estates, haors,2and forests. People in hilly regions (including
Habiganj) have long suffered from regional disparities in
education in the country, resulting in a low literacy rate
(Khan and Islam, 2010). UNICEF Bangladesh (2020) reports the
school dropout rates in the country as 5% in the 5th grade,
6% in the 8th grade and 15% in the 10th grade. These two
different geographical units (Nabinagar and Bahubal Upazilas)
were chosen because of their similarity in having reportedly
high dropout rates (Hossain and Akter, 2019) and variation in
2A Haor is a bowl-shaped large tectonic depression that receives water from rivers
and canals to become an extensive water body during monsoon. For more details,
visit https://en.banglapedia.org/index.php/Haor (accessed on 16 April 2022).
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
TABLE 2 | Relevant demographics of the selected two Upazilas (GoB, 2020).
Name of the Upazila Area (km2) Households Schools (primary to
higher secondary)
Literacy rate
Nabinagar 350.328 94,871 220 68.62%
Bahubal 250.66 37,334 138 39.4%
literacy rates (see Table 2) despite being geographically close
to each other, making it an interesting proposition. Hossain
and Akter (2019) revealed that the reasons behind dropouts in
Brahmanbaria and Habiganj districts are poverty, early marriage,
and various forms of employment for children.
Sampling and Research Methods
The existing body of literature primarily informed this qualitative
study. The primary data was collected from purposively and
carefully selected household cases. The conditions of being
considered as cases for this study are—(i) the household must
have children aged 5–17; (ii) the parents must have life experience
and knowledge regarding the trade-off between child labor and
schooling; and (iii) the informed consent of being a participant
in this research could be obtained. The initial access to the
research areas was obtained through the local government offices.
The Upazila administration (UA)3connected the researchers
with local contacts, including a few non-government workers
and schoolteachers. Then, a snowball technique was employed
for selecting the households and interviewees. Before selecting
any household, the fulfillment of qualifying conditions was
confirmed through informal discussions with its head. Two
methods of data collection—semi-structured interviews and
focus group discussions—were adopted to conduct the study
among the selected homogenous case households and related
key informants.
Interviews
Well-executed semi-structured interviews can provide the
objectivity and trustworthiness of qualitative studies and deliver
plausible results (Kallio et al., 2016; Hoque and Tama, 2021).
Considering the data needs and nature of the study, one-on-
one semi-structured interviews were chosen and conducted with
15 heads of households. Among these individuals, 10 were men
and five were women, and three of the women were single
females. The occupational status of the people interviewed were
as follows: day-laborer (5), farmer (4), fisherman (3), and small
entrepreneurs (3). Besides these people, four local government
officials and two officials of local non-government organizations
(NGO) having relevant work experience were also interviewed.
These key informants were all male. Due to unavailability, it
was not possible to ensure female representation. However, these
additional interviews provided this study with complementary
data, which were helpful to build the whole picture. Each
interview lasted about 40–60 min; however, additional time
3UA as a government administrative body represents the national government at
the Upazila level. The country has 492 Upazilas (Mahmud, 2021).
was required to reach the households due to underdeveloped
rural communication.
Focus Group Discussion
In qualitative research work, Focus Group Discussions (FGD)
are considered effective tools for stimulating opinion, engaged
debates, and in-depth rationale of actions and behaviors. It is
conducted with a purposefully selected group of individuals to
gain an in-depth understanding of social issues (Woodring et al.,
2006; Nyumba et al., 2018). In such discussions, participants
are normally naturalistic and tend to re-evaluate their existing
position (King et al., 2019). To cross-check the validity of
interview data, and to explore additional parental views, two
FGDs were conducted with the parents of the affected children
in the two selected Upazilas. Each group discussion included
participation by six parents—four males and two females. The
FGDs were conducted after completing all individual interviews.
The interviewees (schoolteachers, parents and local education
officers) assisted the researchers in finding suitable participants
for FGDs. These FGDs were carried out in November 2020
when government restrictions on public movement and activities
were already lifted (Adhikary and Habib, 2020). However, safety
measures were maintained while conducting these sessions.
Participants only from close distances could join the discussion.
Each discussion lasts about 2 h. The topics were guided by a set
of open-ended questions which allowed the participants to dig
deeper into the issues and provide useful insights.
Data Analysis, Ethics and Limitations
After completing the 4-week period of data collection in
October–November 2020, data were transcribed, compared, and
analyzed with regards to the existing body of knowledge and
the research questions. Similarities with existing theories and
empirics were noted down. A narrative style of data analysis
and interpretation was employed to understand the reasoning
of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of the participants. Narrative
analysis is centered on the assumption that people use stories
to make sense of themselves, and deals with how the narrator
justifies or makes sense of the interpretations (Frost et al., 2010).
This analysis was helpful to explore the factors of making a
particular trade-off decision, and to report real scenarios. The
aim was to understand the interviewees’ views, perspectives,
and beliefs and generate deep insights, rich descriptions, and
engaging exploration. Focusing on an attainable number of
individual interviews and household cases allowed the analysis
to realize that direction. The analysis provokes thoughts and
provides directions for future research.
Ethical standards of interviewing were strictly followed
while collecting data for this study. Interviews were conducted
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
ensuring that the local COVID-19 pandemic related health
guidelines were maintained, and no psychological harm
occurred. Informed consents were obtained in all cases. However,
the main limitation of this data and research is that the fieldwork
is based in a specific geographic area, time, and context. Readers
must be aware that the findings are drawn from a relatively small
number of interviews and cannot be generalized to a broader
context. Neither FGDs nor the interviews are representational.
These findings should neither be used to compare the two
Upazilas’ child labor/schooling situations. In addition, although
the data collection was carried out carefully, there might be social
desirability bias to it. Some data may reflect mere opinion of the
participants rather than their real-life experiences. As most of the
parents interviewed were illiterate, the role of parental education
could not be well-examined.
FINDINGS AND ANALYSIS
The primary research and secondary review guided the
examination of factors affecting parents’ decision making
on child’s schooling or having them work. The assessment
emphasized on testing some of the common issues regarding
child labor and schooling in rural areas. The empirical analysis
of this study is based upon the individual interviews and FGDs
in rural Bangladesh. The following sections delineate the key
findings and analyses.
Poverty Remains the Most Cited Factor
Parents, among all factors, mainly highlight their economic
impoverishment for trading off child labor with schooling.
Almost all the parents emphasized that poverty is the main reason
behind their decision on not sending children to or pulling
them out from school, and/or engaging in child labor. As one
respondent stated:
I have my 14-year-old son, who has studied up to class (grade)
ten. He has been absent from school for one year. Now he is
working in Dhaka. Due to the financial crisis, I had to stop my
son’s education. I had to take the decision since I could not bear
the extra expenses on top of the regular fees. (Interviewee-10)
Shafiq (2007) noted that the average annual educational costs
at primary, junior-secondary, and higher-secondary levels in
Bangladesh were approximately Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) 517
($ 6),4BDT 2515 ($ 30), and BDT 4559 ($ 53), respectively.
Even including the inflations over the years, this expenditure
remains considerably low. Such low expenditure may not seem
to be substantial enough for stopping schooling. However, for
the marginal poor households this might be challenging to bear.
Furthermore, the opportunity of added income by the children
may induce them to think of trading off schooling with child
labor. Another respondent shared that his income is not enough
to take care of his family, and he has been compelled to engage
his children into labor instead of sending them to school, which
41 United States Dollar values 86 Bangladeshi Taka.Source: https://www.xe.com/
currencyconverter/convert/?Amount=1&From=USD&To=BDT (accessed on 5
December 2021).
is consistent with Basu and Van’s (1998) luxury axiom that if
the total income of a family is below the subsistence level, the
children of the family are compelled to get involved in labor.
Debt is also a major driver for child labor for many households.
Another respondent shared:
I have some loans. As my sons work with me, it has become easy
for me to continue the installments of those loans. (Interviewee-2)
In some cases, children are also used as substitutes for adult
laborers in family businesses where parents directly employ them.
Thus, children can often be the last resort of economic resource.
Single-Headed Households Tend to
Engage Child Labor
Single parent headed households are often compelled to trade
off schooling with child labor. The female-headed households,
particularly, cannot bear the educational expenses or the
opportunity cost of foregone income by the children. Such
household-heads share that their primary concern is to ensure
food and shelter for their family. A widow shared her helplessness
regarding her son’s schooling:
My husband died several years ago. I do not have a regular
job. I found it impossible to continue my son’s schooling.
A local barber shop offered him a job and now, he earns
too. (Interviewee-8)
Another female household head described similar conditions
which echoes Goldin’s (1979) observations for the urban labor
force participation of children in the United States. However,
this finding contradicts Binder and Scrogin’s (1999) hypothesis
that children in female-headed household have a lower chance of
having to work. If the main breadwinner (the male adult in most
cases) dies, the mother of the family has to struggle to manage
subsistence level survival for her family. To increase the total
income of the household, the household seeks for other members’
support, regardless of whether they are adults or children. In such
circumstances, they generally depend on the older (aged 12–17)
children and, ultimately trade-off schooling with child labor.
Taking Care of Younger Siblings Is Crucial
Shedding light on why some older children do not complete
school, one Upazila Education Officer (UEO) pointed out that
older children often have to take care of their younger siblings
at home. Households particularly dependent on agricultural
farming are generally engaged with various farming-related
activities. Often both parents remain busy all day with farmstead
and homestead works. As a result, older children give care
to younger ones in households with a comparatively large
number of members. Salmon (2005) also identified the number
of household members as a major factor in Bangladesh when it
comes to children being engaged in labor. However, some parents
argued that they do not want to stop their children’s schooling,
but that rather it is the children themselves who do not like to go
to school for various reasons. For example, one father stated:
My elder son is 16. He completed up to grade 6. He was weak in
studies. He could not bear the pressure of studies in his school.
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
He used to often get sick. So, he has stopped going to school. We
(both parents) want him to go to school, but he says he does not
like school. (Interviewee-1)
This statement indicates that the schools fail to attract children
for various reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic has made
the situation worse. The long closure of in-person schooling
has pushed some children to drop out of education in
Bangladesh forever.
Parental and Cultural Beliefs About
Children’s Roles Are Important
Most parents who were interviewed expressed their dislike of
the leisure enjoyed by boys. They think boys should always
be doing something productive. If any school-going child does
not go to school or drops out, parents do not allow them to
go idle. This tendency has been obvious during the COVID-
19 pandemic. The long closure induced many poor households
to send their children, particularly boys, to labor. As one
respondent acknowledged:
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school has been closed.
My son did not have to go to school anymore. We don’t have
the (digital) means to let him do the classes online. Meanwhile,
he got an opportunity to work as an apprentice in the local
market. (Interviewee-7)
Sexual division of labor is obvious as most girls were seen working
inside homes while boys work outside. Several parents believed
that homestead jobs should be performed by the girls, while
boys should work outside in the marketplace or family farms
to develop their skills. Availability of paid jobs allocated for
boys, and unpaid jobs for girls is also responsible for this sexual
division of labor.
The findings of this study indicates that boys are mostly pulled
out from the school rather than the girls. One father of a boy and
a girl studying in the same grade (7th grade) in the same school,
shared that due to the growing expenditure he had to pull his son
out of school and engage him in labor work. Another respondent
who has two daughters and one son, kept sending the girls to
school but did not allow the boy to continue. An NGO worker
explained this trend:
Nowadays parents are not interested to send their sons to school.
But in case of their daughters, they are interested to some extent.
Because they believe boys can earn money even without being
formally educated. (Interviewee-22)
Probing this observation further reveals that a lot has to do with
the government incentives provided for school going students.
Parents find it beneficial to keep girls (as opposed to boys)
enrolled through secondary schooling as they receive incentives
from the government. More importantly, girls can combine
homestead unpaid work with schooling. One Higher Secondary
Education Officer (HSEO) reflected:
Girls receive regular stipends from schools. While making a trade-
off decision, parents tend to send sons to paid works, and ask
their daughters to continue with schooling to receive government
incentives. (Interviewee-23)
Therefore, to the parents, the opportunity cost of sending boys
to school is greater than for girls, which is similar to the results
that (Arends-Kuenning and Amin, 2004) found in their study
on the impacts of incentive programmes on children’s activities
in Bangladesh. Traditionally, patriarchal norms and beliefs
remained obstacles to girls’ advancement and development in
rural areas (Parveen, 2007; Islam and Sharma, 2021). Yet, the
country has made tremendous progress in girls’ education in
rural areas (Tanaka et al., 2021). However, strong cultural beliefs
are critically unfavorable for girls’ education, including a religious
convention mentioned by a respondent in FGD:
There is a convention in Muslim community that girls do not
require higher education. If they can complete primary education,
then it is good enough to marry them off. (FGD-1, Bahubal)
Emerging evidence shows that education institutions’ extended
closure (nearly 2 years) has had severe negative impacts on
child marriages and dropouts in Bangladesh (Hussain, 2021).
A recent report reveals that the number of child marriages in
Bangladesh has increased by 13% during the pandemic (Dhaka
Tribune, 2021). The pandemic also led to a sharp rise in child
labor (Financial Express, 2021). Moreover, parents usually send
their daughters to school for immediate returns, instead of an
ambition of any long-term return; they want to marry them off
as soon as possible. Hence, in most cases, girls’ education stops at
the end of the secondary school level. One parent with the same
mindset shared:
I wish, my daughter successfully passes secondary school. Then it
will be easy for us to arrange a good marriage for her. (Interviewee-
9)
Interviews with parents of full-time working and non-school
going children reveal that such parents are mostly illiterate. It
indicates that parents’ illiteracy may have negative impacts on
their children’s schooling and a positive relationship with child
labor incidences (i.e., the less literate the parents, the more likely
that their children are engaged in child labor).
Educational Expenditure and Structural
Factors Related to Schooling Are Critical
In Bangladesh, primary-level schooling is free from tuition fees
for everyone, while at the higher secondary level, schooling is free
for girls only. The government provides books for free as well.
However, parents must bear some extra educational expenses for
buying additional books and materials. Some households also
need to pay for the travels to school. Poor households find it hard
to bear these expenses. The following statements clearly reflect
this issue.
I cannot afford to pay for both of my children; apart from fees,
running expenses for schooling are too high for me (Interviewee-
10).
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
For educational materials government can give us allowance
because we are destitute and helpless. (FGD-2, Nabinagar)
High school expenditure may induce parents with low incomes
to pull their children out of school (Sabates et al., 2013). In
Bangladesh, there is no such credit available for the poor with
which they can maintain their children’s educational expenditure.
Though the government provides incentives for school-going
girls, parents believe this support is not enough. In rural areas
where government-run schools are far from home, parents
sometimes send their children to non-government schools.
However, as indicated in one of the above statements, non-
government schools are relatively more expensive. An FGD
participant raised this issue:
The government-run school is too far to walk to. Our children
attend a nearby private school, and the cost is very high. (FGD-
2, Nabinagar)
Lack of availability and poor facilities of government-run schools
also work as a crucial deterrent that drive children away
from attending these schools. Huisman and Smits (2009) also
noted similar observations regarding educational facilities for
rural children in developing countries. One participant in FGD
elaborately stated:
In this remote village, I cannot ensure a fitting environment for
my children. Teachers in school do not give them adequate time
and care. If I could manage a good house tutor, they would do
much better in their studies. My son was in grade four, but he left
school a couple of years ago. Now, he does nothing neither study
nor work. I hope he can do some paid jobs to acquire skills in the
coming years. (FGD-1, Bahubal)
Parents value the skill development of their children since skills
have immediate demands and returns through paid jobs. On
the other hand, formal education is a long-term investment that
parents do not find worth the money. In addition, schooling is
not always considered an investment in human capital. When
parents think their children are not receiving quality education
or not doing well enough, they tend to start thinking negatively
about investing in human capital. One UEO stated that parents
often believe that learning skills though working is more valuable
than education.
Intra-Household Demand and Supply of
Labor Happens
During the season of peak agricultural activities, the adults
of the households (both male and female) get engaged into
farmstead and homestead works. Girls are additionally employed
in household work to help their mothers and boys are employed
in the field to help their fathers. Generally, poor families cannot
hire people to meet this higher demand for labor, so instead,
they pull their children out of school. An NGO officer said that
when the demand for labor increases, households use children as
laborers to save on costs. One female parent in the FGD stated:
During the harvesting season, we cannot send our children to
school. We need their help to fill the labor shortage. They help
to save expenses. (FGD-1, Bahubal)
Therefore, irregular attendance and drop-outs are normal during
the harvesting season. The participants informed that the
decision of using children in family farming is usually taken by
both parents (if available) together. The following statement from
one HSEO further illustrates this issue.
There is a negative impact of the harvesting season on
children’s school attendance. In the rural areas, most poor
households withdraw their children from schools and engage
them in harvesting work. It has become almost a culture
here. (Interviewee-23)
Parents Engaged in Labor-Intensive
Occupations Tend to Trade-Off More
Frequently
When non-parent respondents were asked to mention the
type of occupations people were employed in which generally
led to those households’ children being more likely to be
engaged in child labor, they mentioned low-income households
headed by farmers, day-laborers, tea garden workers, fishermen,
and rickshaw pullers. All the respondents of this study who
engaged their children into labor are in low-income occupations.
From our study, one male parent who runs a construction
business stated:
My elder son completed secondary school and works in
construction with me. My second son studied up to class six and
now works with me. My third son is in class four, and he is too
young to help me in my business or works. (Interviewee-2)
Another father engaged in small business said that one of his sons
was engaged in his shop instead of going to school which also
strengthen the hypothesis that if parents need labor, they tend
to engage their own children. One HSEO corroborated this by
saying that low-earning parents generally engage their children
in their own occupations. The six officials interviewed in this
study affirmed that the rate of school dropouts from households
headed by labor-intensive occupations is higher than others. One
respondent in an FGD stated:
I have my own shop. My sons help me. It helps us to earn more
profit since I do not have to hire labor. This way, they can also
learn how to run businesses. (FGD-2, Nabinagar)
This indicates that this tendency may not be merely driven by
subsistence needs, and altruistic parents often want their children
to follow their footsteps as well.
Which Interventions at the Government
and Non-government Levels Can Be
Effective?
The respondents were asked what kind of government or
non-government organizational support would help them to
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
keep their children in schools. Many respondents mentioned
credit facilities and cash and in-kind transfer support. Lack
of credit facilities are associated with some of the crucial
factors affecting child schooling and encouraging child labor
engagement instead. If the adult members of the household can
create any opportunity of sufficient earning with credit facilities,
it can reduce subsistence challenges. Parents note that suitable
credit facilities could help them to improve their marginal
income. It would then be easy for them to send their children to
school or carry on with their schooling. How credit facilities can
increase opportunities for sending children to school has been
described by one of the FGD participants:
If parents can earn by investing in a small business, it will generate
additional financial resources. Then, they will not be forced to
utilize the labor of their children. Big families can also afford to
send their children to schools. (FGD-2, Nabinagar)
Sometimes parents want their children to combine schooling
and household work. They think that a little help from their
children in homestead work will not hamper their children’s
studies. Credit-run businesses can allow more parents to do so.
As one respondent stated:
If I could get loans with which I could buy livestock like cows
or goats, then I could send my son to school. The return from
the livestock would be helpful. All our family members can work
together to take care of the livestock. (Interviewee-4)
One NGO worker believes that if households had access to
credit, they would not withdraw children from schools even
in the harvesting season. They could instead afford to hire
adult laborers. However, some of the respondents mentioned
some procedural disadvantages regarding credit receiving and
repayment. A substantial number of respondents shared their
fear of managing installment repayments. To pay the installment
every week or month sometimes becomes troublesome for them.
They said that they worried they would not be able to make profit
due to investment imperfections like failure to invest in proper
fields, and consequently fall into unbearable liabilities. Some of
them do not want to receive any more loans. Furthermore, the
high rate of interests, especially from the NGOs, is also a concern
for them. As one respondent stated:
Some of us are afraid of getting any loans because it becomes hard
for us to pay installments regularly. We have not applied for any
loans in the recent past. (Interviewee-1).
The issue of debt remains very crucial for many households. Also,
some households who received loans against their agricultural
farms from NGOs could not invest in their intended purposes.
For example, one household spent their entire loan amount
on building a house as she had no house to live in. Another
respondent said that he has spent some of his loan in buying
medicines for his family. Both families depend on child labor to
some extent. They think if the installment and the rate of interest
would have been favorable, they could have benefitted from the
loan to a greater extent. As one respondent stated:
Paying weekly installments sometimes becomes hard for me. If
it could be paid after three or four months, then it would be
much easier. In addition, the rate of interest is also too high for
us. (Interviewee-2)
Some parents believe that conventional credit facilities are
not suitable for poor households. Generally, poor households
receive an amount of credit which is too little to start
any profitable enterprise. They think interest-free loans or
government allowances would work better in terms of helping
them to make their children free to go to school instead of having
to work. As one FGD participant shared:
We are afraid of loans because of their high interest rates. We
need interest-free loans worth BDT. 50,000 to 100,000. Besides,
government can give allowance per child of around BDT. 3,000
to 5,000 per month so that we can send them to school. We need
support for our boys too. (FGD-2, Nabinagar)
However, they did not dig into the phenomenon that most
parents having small businesses also tend to use child labor—
either from their own family or from other sources. Small
businesses tend to employ children to save money. Evidence
suggests that transfer programs are generally more effective
in reducing child labor (Dammert et al., 2018). Nevertheless,
there needs to be policies that protect and support such
poor households.
CONCLUSIONS
This study explored the factors behind the trade-off between
children’s schooling and labor. The empirical analysis also
identified some crucial determinants of the issue. The results
confirm earlier findings that households which are at below
subsistence levels of income are more likely to trade off their
child’s schooling with child labor. Though the primary and
secondary school expenditure in Bangladesh is relatively low,
even then, the marginal poor households do struggle with the
costs. Parents depend on their children’s economic activities
to both generate income and reduce household expenditure.
Furthermore, studies also show that single parent female-headed
households tend to trade off schooling with child labor to a
greater extent than other household groups. In poor households,
older children often have to take care of younger siblings, which
affects their school attendance. Due to the sex-disaggregated
division of labor, boys are mostly engaged in market work
and girls in household work. Moreover, girls are sometimes
discriminated against in terms of getting a proper education or
being engaged in more productive work because of social and
cultural beliefs. From a patriarchic social point of view, many
people in rural Bangladesh believe that girls do not need higher
education as they should not work outside the home. Because
of this, many poor and ignorant parents tend to stop their
girls’ education quite early. There is also a pervading cultural
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Islam and Hoque Trade-Off Between Schooling and Labor
belief that children should not go idle. The combination of these
social and cultural beliefs mean that parents often encourage
their children (both boys and girls) to work instead of going
to school. Boys are more likely to be pulled out of school
rather than girls since boys have more demand for work in
paid jobs (e.g., workshops, saloons, agricultural farms) away
from home. Boys also do not receive adequate government
allowances (compared to girls). Furthermore, parents’ lack of
education has a strong correlation with trading-off schooling
with child labor.
In addition to these factors, the lack of adequate educational
facilities, additional schooling expenses, and poor quality of
teaching also influence parental decisions in terms of whether to
send their children to school or not. The empirical findings from
this study indicate that parental expectation on the importance
of their children’s education is strongly associated with children
dropping out of school and practicing child labor. This means
that if parents put a low value on their children’s education, the
more likely they are to drop out and get engaged in child labor.
The findings of the study suggest that sometimes households view
children as the last resort to meet their economic or labor needs.
Parents employed in labor-intensive occupations are also more
likely to engage their children into labor work instead of sending
them to school.
Finally, the findings also suggest that parents have mixed
views regarding credits and loans. Some are in favor of credit
as a means of business support, while others fear it for its
high interest rates. Analysis highlights that support programmes,
especially cash and in-kind transfers, influence parental attitudes
and behavior concerning this trade-off. However, bringing
positive outcomes toward increasing child schooling would
require carefully designed interventions. Since parents’ decision-
making on the issue does not merely depend on their household
characteristics but rather on various kinds of socio-economic and
cultural factors, support interventions must target the underlying
causes of child labor.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be
made available by the authors upon reasonable request.
ETHICS STATEMENT
The risk assessment and ethics of the field research of this study
were reviewed and approved by the University of Birmingham,
UK. The participants provided their written informed consent to
participate in this study.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
Both authors have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual
contribution to the work and approved it for publication.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We thank all our respondents. We are grateful to the reviewers
and editor for their insightful and constructive suggestions.
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