Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Debate over Basic Rights

Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Principle 9, proclaimed by General Assembly Resolution 1386 (IXV) of 20 Nov, 1959 states in unambiguous terms that “The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation”.

In practice, however, abuse of children’s human rights is rampant in many parts of the world. In poor countries, there exists a serious form of abuse called ‘child labour’. Every child deserves to grow up in a healthy environment, free of exploitation and fear, in order to effectively realize his full potential, develop into a responsible adult and be a productive part of the society.

Children’s participation in work that does not interfere with their education, health or normal development clearly cannot be classified as child labour, but when they are exploited and made to work beyond their capacity in conditions unsuitable for their age and health, child labour becomes a shameful reality none can ignore.
Child labour is defined by the International Labour Organization as: "work situations where children are compelled to work on a regular basis to earn a living for themselves and their families, and as a result are disadvantaged educationally and socially; where children work in conditions that are exploitative and damaging to their health and to their physical and mental development; where children are separated from their families, often deprived of educational and training opportunities; where children are forced to lead prematurely adult lives."

Child labour is largely acknowledged by development planners and practitioners as a problem of the poverty-ridden societies where it is widely accepted and commonly practiced. Since South Asian nations are mostly underdeveloped, Asia’s children end up being at a distressing disadvantage. Social trends in some South Asian countries are also different regarding the accepted age of achieving ‘adulthood’ – in terms of constituting a part of the workforce children as old as twelve years of age are considered physically capable of performing tasks suitable for adults. Where large sections of populations live in extreme deprivation, child labour is not seen as a violation of the child’s rights but as a means of survival. However, lured with false promises of attractive work prospects, many poor children end up working in exploitative environments and hazardous conditions and become victims of abuse, working up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, with no minimum wage limit or rest periods. They also suffer serious illness and injury as a result of it. A report by the ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ of India states that it has found evidence of many children suffering in horrifying conditions where they ‘live in a den…are beaten with sticks and iron rods and not even allowed to see their parents.’ The vocations of these unfortunate children may include working in brick kilns and factories, rock crushing, mining, domestic servitude, prostitution, or forcible recruitment as child soldiers to fight in conflict areas.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated, in a 2002 study, the percentage of children aged 5-14 in Asia and the Pacific who are economically active as being 19%. These children form almost 60% of all the child labourers worldwide. Since poverty seems to be the main reason behind the problem of child labour plaguing these Asian countries, it is only reasonable to assume that poverty alleviation schemes should make a difference in the lives of these children. However, poverty alleviation is not a simple task of ensuring two square meals a day. Some sustainable development projects have to be initiated in order to make a sustained positive impact on their standard of living and to keep them out of the labour markets till the right time or age. Provision of basic education along with vocational and practical skills is widely acknowledged as an effective means to break the cycle of poverty.

Fighting child labour also requires a constant adaptation in strategies because of the appearance of its ever-evolving forms among different communities – a combination of various factors encourages the growth of this menace and hence a combination of strategies is required to combat it. Factors identified by ILO as being conducive to conditions resulting in an increase in the number of child labourers are: parental poverty and illiteracy, social and economic attitudes and circumstances, lack of access to education, lack of awareness, and adult unemployment or underemployment. To counter this phenomenon, strengthening the capacity of countries and communities to deal with the problem and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour needs to be put in place. Creating awareness of the rights of a child, providing social protection and education, passing on benefits of economic growth to the poor, strict legislation and inculcating respect for labour standards can bring about a significant reduction in the incidence of child labour. The International community, committed to abolishing child labour through a progressive and systematic approach, has taken many initiatives in this regard. The UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, the World Bank, (IPEC) ILO, the Global Task Force on education, along with many NGOs at local and international levels have unequivocally stressed the need for free and compulsory quality education, as defined in the ILO Convention 138, as a crucial component of any effort against child labour. The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child labour (IPEC) has stressed that prevention and elimination of child labour should be an essential part of education policy worldwide. These agencies are providing financial as well as technical assistance wherever required, working with volunteers from various sections of societies as well as private organizations, NGOs, the media, judiciary, universities, community-based setups, private businesses etc.

Various initiatives of these organizations have shown remarkable improvement in the status of children in the Asian countries. For example, in 1995, 43% of the garment factories working under BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) had employed children. By 2003, after the inception of the BGMEA/ILO/UNICEF project against child labour, the number was reduced to 1%. Similarly, with assistance from UNICEF, the Sri Lankan Government has taken productive steps to help war-affected children and youths reintegrate into the society.

Some private organizations are also making a noticeable contribution by involving and mobilizing communities to take charge of their own development. One such private voluntary organization called ‘World Education’ helps equip people with skills like planning, budgeting, fundraising, financial accounting etc. In India, which houses the largest number of 'working' children in the world - about ? of the world's total, World Education in partnership with local organizations has helped develop education programs focused on practical life skills. From 1999 -2002 World Education also worked on a pilot project known as ‘Women’s Empowerment through Literacy and Livelihood Development’ (WELLD) which led to development of curriculum integrating literacy with savings and credit group formation. This has helped women make informed choices about their livelihood. In Pakistan, World Education is part of a group of organizations seeking to strengthen education system, and aiming to improve status of young and adult literacy and education policy planning. It is also providing technical assistance.

According to IPEC, for the purpose of rehabilitation, the shift back from workplace to formal schooling systems is often difficult to manage and proves to be unproductive in the long run. To make a smooth transition, some non-formal education (NFE) systems are a necessity which act as a bridge between the child worker and mainstream education. Non-formal educational programmes which are relevant and easily accessible to poor families have enabled many child workers to come up to their age-appropriate grade level. Mainstreaming of former child labourers is extremely important as it is vital to preventing them from rejoining the labour markets prematurely, and improves their prospects of finding better jobs later on.

The initiatives taken by various humanitarian organizations in an effort to abolish child labour in the underdeveloped world must be supplemented by a strong political will of respective governments so that the injustice being done to the large number of children is dealt with effectively. Protecting these children is the only way to ensure a better tomorrow.

SouthAsia Magazine, Debate over Basic Rights July 2008

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