Children in rural NSW are waking up before the sun to help their families survive Australia’s crippling drought. Farming families are under extreme levels of stress as a result of this natural disaster and are doing everything they can to provide for their children. We went to schools in Gunnedah, Tamworth, Narrabri and Walgett to hear from these kids. This is what they told us.


5am
- Alarm rings. It’s still dark. Sheep need to be fed.

9am - School bell rings. Algebra. Maths is first today.

3:30pm - School bell rings. Time to go home. Did I take hay out this morning?

4:30pm - Back on the farm. It feels even hotter today. Better feed the sheep.

9pm - I still haven’t done my homework.

12am - Lights off. Time for bed.


The room is surprisingly cool. A large air-conditioning unit is roaring in the background, forcibly blowing pieces of loosely pinned paper on the classroom’s walls. It is a stark contrast to the soaring heat on the other side of the window.

A group of high school students file into the classroom one by one. They are hesitant to talk at first, but it is not long before they open up. For some, it is the first time they will reflect on the drought aloud.  

It’s only midday, but some of these kids have already worked a full day. They have woken up before the sun to support the family’s livelihood.

High school students taking part in UNICEF Australia's drought consultations. ©UNICEFAustralia/Ziaziaris

It is not uncommon for many families impacted by the drought and not something children are forced to do. These kids know their parents are striving to do the best they can for them.

They want to contribute to the business and help reduce the workload of their parents during this difficult time. For some children, however, it means missing out on school, giving up sport and recreational activities and losing much needed sleep. Students as young as 13-years-old are working longer days than most adults.

But you’ll rarely hear them complain.
Walgett, about three hours north of Tamworth, hasn't seen rain in months. ©UNICEFAustralia/Hay

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

Her stoic attitude is common among farming families - no matter how great the stress, someone is always ‘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 adds.

Within only minutes of talking to this group one message becomes clear. Beneath this shield of stoicism, children are under significant pressure from this natural disaster and they are struggling.
Lake Keepit, located on the outskirts of Gunnedah, is almost completely dry. ©UNICEFAustralia/Townlife
 
Olivia* is sitting on the opposite side of the room to her older sister when she explains the emotional toll growing up prematurely has had on her.

She, like many others in the room, described the reality of having responsibilities beyond her years with workloads on the farm increasing substantially as a result of the drought. Just this term, she has taken at least 10 days off school.

Her parents asked Olivia to help out at home because her older sister, Emma*, has just started year 12 - a critical year with university entrance exams. It’s an almost impossible choice.
Olivia is crying and her older sister is also clearly upset by the reflections.

“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,” James*, another student says.
Primary school students speak up about the impacts of the drought. ©UNICEFAustralia/Ziaziaris

These themes are consistent with what has been said by other groups of children and young people we have heard from across the New England region.

There is no rest for many farming children and their families. It’s evidently clear, that while the federal and state governments have taken significant steps to ensure drought-affected communities are supported, more can be done for children and young people.

About an hour later, the small group of students depart the same way they came in. They leave the air-conditioned room and step out back under the scorching sun. It was only a short reprieve.

*Names have been changed for privacy. 
Farmers are tightening their belts and children and being forced to grow up prematurely as a result of this natural disaster. © UNICEFAustralia/Ziaziaris

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