Child labor - how do we define it? Isn't it something that we see everyday and turn our backs on? Remember the child selling the latest issue of Cosmo on the street? Or the one from whom we bought that nariyal pani from, when the heat was getting to us? How elated we were! Ah! Helped a child today! Helped? Yes that's what we thought. That's what most of us think when we buy these little things from the children selling them. But while we were quenching our thirst and gloating in our newfound role of a 'savior', did we notice the thirst on that child's lips?
What most of us fail to see is the sweat on their foreheads. The beads of perspiration on their little brows. The worried looks on their faces. Yes. What we fail to see is their helplessness. We see their poverty; we see their 'hard work'. What we don't see is their freedom. What we don't see is a child's innocent smile. Face it 'we don't see a child at all!
What we see is a little person trying to earn a livelihood. Trying to feed his family. Trying to make ends meet. And most of us appreciate this. Why not? That child isn't begging. Is he? He's working. Making an honest living. Well, its time we gave it another thought!
Another thought to the fact that the child will never know what school is; what books are; what his name would look like in print. While our kids throw tantrums for the new GI Joe, he'll never know what a teddy is.
We have to wake up to the fact that poverty, illiteracy, our social structure, lack of efficient social reforms, have together, raped his childhood.
We need to give his childhood, with all its innocence, back to him. We owe this to him. This is his right.
We have to bring about awareness for ending this charade of child labor in the garb of child welfare. It is time that certain questions, regarding our policies on child labor, need to be asked out loud.
Some Hard Facts
According to a 1996 report (quoting UNICEF and ILO as sources), the number of child laborers in India can be anywhere between 14 to 100 million children! Most of these children work in homes as domestic help. The rest in industries such as bidi making, carpet weaving, football sewing, cracker making to name a few.
For the year 2000 the ILO projected the number of economically active children in India to be 13,157,000 out of which 5,992,000 were girls between the ages of ten to fourteen. (ILO, International Labor Office - Bureau of Statistics, Economically Active Population 1950-2010, STAT Working Paper, ILO 1997)
Based on the number of non-school going children and families living in destitution CACL estimated that there are between 70 and 80 million child laborers in India. (CACL, "An Alternative Report on the Status of Child Labor in India", submission to the UN CRC, September-October 1999)
In 1998 South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) estimated the number of child laborers in India to be 60 million while the ILO estimated it to be 44 million.
(SACCS, Kailash Satyarthi, personal communication, 1998)
(US Dept of State, Human Rights Report, 1998)
As many as 100 million boys and girls are believed to be working in homes and factories across India, many in conditions akin to slavery. (ECPAT, "Child Labor Ruling Provokes Scorn", Bulletin, Vol. 4/1, 1996-97)
Most of the 87 million children, not in school, do housework, work on family farms, work along side their parents as paid agricultural labor, work as domestic servants, or are employed in industries which utilize child labor such as hand-knotted carpets, gemstone polishing, brass and brass metal articles, glass and glassware, footwear, textiles, silk and fireworks. (EI, EI Barometer on Human and Trade Union Rights in the Education Sector, 1998)
Amazing! Isn't it? While we sit at home and teach our kids the alphabets; a child, somewhere, is learning the ABC of life -.the hard way.
Salma, a mere five year old, climbs on a stool to prepare chapattis for the family that took her in after she lost her parents. She does almost all the housework including sweeping floors, polishing shoes, washing and ironing clothes and running small errands. It's a very convenient relationship for all involved. The family gets its work done in exchange of food and an odd pair of clothes while Salma gets a roof over her head.
But if we think of the whole scenario on a broad spectrum, exactly how long can this go on? Exactly what will Salma's future be? Ten years down the road, if she is lucky enough to ditch the flesh trade, she will still be working as a domestic help. Maybe, she will get married and have children of her own, while still working in someone's house. With no education to fall back upon she'll continue living below poverty line. And, in turn, will have to make her kids work either as domestic help like herself or in some other vocation - the vicious circle killing their childhood too!
Why does a full generation of children have to pay for their adults' faults? Ten-year-old Ravikant was sent to work in the carpet weaving factory when the family needed a loan of 5000 Rupees for an elder sibling's wedding. Ravikant will have to work as a bonded laborer in this factory till maybe such a time that he is ready to get married and move on to heavier work to fulfill the family's ever-growing needs, but not before another of his younger siblings takes over his duties at the factory.
This vicious circle continues with many little kids being forced into bondage. This circle is the monster child of various problems such as poverty, adult unemployment, our social structure, illiteracy, lack of family planning, vague laws, and weak law enforcement to name a few. Even after a lifetime of work these families will never be able to repay the loans taken by them, thus killing the future of their coming generations.
I agree it is irrational to think that child labor can be abolished overnight. It has to be a continuous process. But one that has to be initiated by ordinary people like you and I. The NGOs and the government are doing their bit. But are we?
I don't want to come across as an idealist. There will be problems in trying to eradicate child labor. What we need to do is attack it at the roots. But all of us should try to do our bit. It doesn't make a difference how big or small our contribution is. What really matters is that we 'feel' about it. Even a small contribution of teaching a single child; of providing education to one child in our lifetime will go a long way in helping our society to cope with this problem. Each of us can do our bit. We can each be committed to this cause. We can bring about a change; provided we are committed from our hearts!
Will there come a time when we won't feel guilty every time we see a child from our cars, sweating it out in the heat? 'A time when we see a world where basic education is a child's right? 'When we see that little twinkle in a child's eyes, the innocence on his face? When we hear the little cribbing of today's homework? 'A time when we see a child again!
And I know there will be a time when this will come true. With more organizations and more people committed to this cause coming forward, this will come true!
It will be a long and hard battle. But one that will be won! All that we have to do is to keep going on, and remember what Robert Frost said,
'The woods are lonely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.'
And so do we, but the silver lining is hard to miss.