A child worker is employed in road excavation to upgrade utilities in Dhaka, Bangladesh. South Asia has millions of child laborers. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Most of us have an idyllic view of childhood, mollycoddled by loving parents and doting grandmas. Alas, this whitewashed version of our younger years is far from the truth and probably only realized among a small number of children in the First World.
In most other countries of the world — and in India particularly — childhood is a time of deprivation, of burdensome work, sexual trauma and worse.
So June 12, the date designated by the UN to fight child labor, is an occasion to reflect on the situation of children worldwide and to pledge ourselves anew to uphold the rights of the child.
Worldwide, millions of children are forced into unpaid or paid work that deprives them of an education, a happy childhood and a prosperous future.
Measuring the exact scale of child labor in India is difficult as it is often hidden and under-reported. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are around 12.9 million Indian children aged 7-17 engaged in work. Such children are less likely to attend school or to drop out early, trapped as they are in the cycle of poverty.
Where are most children forced to work? According to a study by the ILO, the majority of the world's child labor (around 71 percent) is done in the agriculture sector, which includes plantations and rice fields.
Much more has to be done in the political landscape to stop exploitative child labor in India
About 17 percent are employed as service staff, mainly as domestic workers or in restaurants, and another 12 percent are spread across jobs in industry, including dangerous activities in mines.
Many child laborers in India work for starvation wages in textile factories, helping with the processing of carpets or doing backbreaking work in brick-making kilns and quarries.
Children are also used as cheap labor in industries such as steel extraction, gem polishing and making fireworks.
But it’s not just work: reports reveal that the sexual trafficking of children is growing. As adult women get more empowered, male predators seek out vulnerable children and adolescents to satisfy their lust. A staggering number of girls — around 1.2 million — are victims of child trafficking in India, whether through traditional bondage or through organized crime. Sadly, India is a culture which hates its girl children.
The government enacted a law against child labor in 1993 prohibiting “dangerous work,” activities that might harm the mental, spiritual or social development of girls and boys under the age of 18.
But if working in mines and quarries is dangerous, the law says nothing about exposing children to pesticides or to physically exhausting work like carpet weaving.
Also, there are loopholes in the law which allow working children if this is part of “a family business.” Numerous business leaders, such as mine owners, hold political office and have considerable influence in sabotaging the implementation of these laws. After all, companies profit from the cheap labor that unorganized children provide.
Much more has to be done in the political landscape to stop exploitative child labor in India: the laws against child labor must be further tightened and more strictly enforced.
In breaking the chains of child labor, few have done more than Kailash Satyarthi, activist and Nobel Peace laureate, who made it his life’s mission to eradicate child labor across the globe.
Years ago, when he started this work, he would print thousands of leaflets in multiple languages, for distribution in bazaars, fairs and pilgrimage places, to inform the public about the evils of child labor.
As Satyarthi says: “It took two decades before child labor became a global issue. When I founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan [Save Childhood Movement] (BBA) in 1980 in India, I discovered that none of the United Nations bodies — nor the ILO, nor UNICEF, nor the World Bank — had any international legal instrument to prevent children from being drawn into labor, trafficking, prostitution and other dangerous occupations.
"I looked at Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and realized that they all had similar situations concerning contemporary slavery. So, I started to participate in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, and decided to work towards an international law against child slavery.
"I campaigned in Europe and America. As a result, the first ILO International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor was born in 1992. Then UNICEF and the World Bank joined in.
"In 1993, BBA initiated its first march against child labor in India. Five years later, we launched the 80,000-kilometer Global March Against Child Labor across 103 countries. It lasted six months.
"The crowning achievement of these efforts was the ILO Convention 182, concerning the Prohibition and Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. It was unanimously adopted and ratified by 181 countries. This happened in 1999, 20 years after my first leaflets were circulated in India.”
Education brings empowerment, dignity and identity to the most deprived, particularly to children and girls
Most of all, it is important to combat extreme poverty, the root cause of child labor. Addressing poverty and inequality is crucial to end child labor, especially in India.
For the fatalistic world view of most Indians accepts both poverty and low status as God-given, and so something to be accepted with resignation. This must be changed.
Access to education is also vital. As children complete higher levels of education, they are more likely to find decent work in adulthood and can use their income to care for themselves and their families without relying on child labor.Although education is compulsory and free in India for children up to the age of 14, widespread poverty forces families to prioritize putting food on the table over sending their children to school.As a result, many children attend school irregularly, or not at all, because they must work instead.Education brings empowerment, dignity and identity to the most deprived, particularly to children and girls. Once they are educated about their rights, once they acquire reading and writing skills, they gain tremendous self-confidence.Satyarthi witnessed girls standing up and refusing to be married against their will because they knew their rights and could go to the police or a non-govern-mental organization.
In the same way, many boys trapped in slave labor, once they know they have rights, are able to make contact with someone who can help.Still, the fight against child labor in India is long and arduous, and it requires our total engagement.In the end, it is a struggle to determine the kind of people we wish to become — whether a nation largely of slaves, crippled in body and mind, or a nation free in spirit and aspiration because it has enjoyed education and the dignity which comes with it.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.