In search of a lost childhood

In search of a lost childhood

'World Day Against Child Labour' is being observed today to raise awareness on the plight of child labourers. DH Photo.

You see them every day! If they are not selling flowers at traffic signals, they are working at restaurants or as household helps. To be precise, they are doing what they should not be doing and not going where they should be going. While they continue to toil in dangerous conditions and are exploited day after day, 'Send children to school, not work', largely remains wishful thinking. Yet another 'World Day Against Child Labour' is before us highlighting a responsibility that many chose to conveniently ignore.

"There are two factors that prompt or force children into work – the first one is that child labour remains socially and culturally acceptable and communities and employers feel it’s okay to make children work," informs Bidisha Pillai, CEO of Save the Children.

"Secondly, there is inadequate and poorly enforced legislation like Children and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) (Amendment) Act, 1986 -- that has been amended in 2016. While it makes the working of children under 14 years a cognizable offence, the provision to allow children to work after school hours to help families in their family enterprise can lead to a risky situation -- it leaves the door open for potential abuse/exploitation of children. Widespread poverty and poor implementation of social protection also continually push children into labour," she says.

It would, therefore, be only appropriate on this day to look at where India stands when it comes to child labour. 

"Although there have been over 10 million children in the age group of 5-14 years who are engaged in work (according to census 2011), there are 62 million children in the age group 5-14 years who are not attending educational institutions. On the other hand, 33 million (26.6 million in rural, 6.4 million in urban areas) children in the age group of 5-18 years are engaged in the labour force (according to census 2011)," she adds.

'Save the Children' have been working with Residents Welfare Associations and Market Associations in creating child labour-free zones. They feel the best way to convince the general public and the community about child labour is to inform them that it causes immense harm to the lives and future of children. 

"Child labour deprives children of a complete childhood as it affects their education, impacts their physical development adversely and leaves them more vulnerable to exploitation, neglect and abuse. There is a need to have a campaign where everyone accepts that ‘Child labour is not OK -- as it interferes with their childhood,'' Bidisha says.
The danger, perhaps, also lies in the fact that child labour has been accepted as a norm in this society. It is a reality that goes much beyond poverty. 

"Child labour disproportionately affects children from poor, disadvantaged communities. Families seldom involve or send their children to work by choice. Lack of adequate livelihood opportunities, social security, household poverty and the need to supplement family income are major contributing factors that push children into labour," says Puja Marwaha, CEO, Child Rights and You (CRY).

"The lack of access to education, or the absence of education opportunities, failure of the education system, and the lack of quality education especially in the secondary education level further exacerbate the situation and contributes to sustaining it. These factors coupled with poor child protection mechanisms often make children from vulnerable families fall prey to trafficking for labour and forces them into situations such as sex trade, domestic work etc," she says.

"Rehabilitation of child labourers involves the process of rescue, repatriation and reintegration with the society. Enrolling children into schools also is a major part of the rehabilitation of child labourers. Also, strong community-based child protection mechanisms and implementation of legislation including victim compensation and rehabilitation schemes are extremely important in addressing the issue,"  she informs.

CRY believes that bringing children back to school minimises the risk of getting children fall through the crack and fall prey to child labour. School keeps children away from labour, and hence safe from many other potential dangers of physical and mental abuse as well as health issues. 

"We also do believe that every child in school is an opportunity for an equal start, a chance for growth into full potential and thus contributing citizens. A child engaged in labour, on the other hand, is perpetuating the cycle of poverty and losing the scope of change in the situation," Puja adds. There are also concerns about the problem of child labour existing in other industries as well, for instance, entertainment and fashion. If so, what can be done about it?

"The amended child labour law does refer to child artistes in the entertainment and audiovisual industry. However, we as a country are yet to have accurate estimates on how many child artistes there are and their working conditions. Instances of physical, sexual exploitation of children, compromise on their health and education have begun to gain the attention of late," says Puja.

"While the law does intend to regulate the work conditions of child artistes, it's modalities of implementation will need further nuancing. It needs the joint collaboration of families, the entertainment industry, child development professionals, mental health experts and various departments of the govt (education, health, labour, WCD) to develop norms of work in keeping with child protection requirements," she says.

The United Nations points out that over 218 million children between 5 and 17 years are engaged in labour worldwide. Rescuing and rehabilitating is then the answer. "From the experiences of 'Save the Children', while working on child labour projects, we have seen that there are three things that have worked very well on educating and rehabilitating children who are involved in labour --   robust campaigning and making community supporting groups like village-level child protection committees, who not only create awareness on child labour issues in communities but track, remove and monitor families who have children involved in labour; improving access to social protection schemes for households who send children into work; improving education in schools so that children are able to learn and grow (this works as a pull-factor because many children do get into work because of a poor quality education system at school)," adds Bidisha.