Child labour: Look beyond raid & rescue

Children are the ones being denied their rights; it is only fair that they can participate in abolishing child labour and ensuring education for all


David Brickey Bloomer | April 30, 2010

Much has been made over the last few months regarding the passage and launch of the Right to Education Act and what it holds for the future of children’s education—access, quality, inclusion—in India.  Although there are many critics and indifferent pundits—and the fact that the RTE may fall short of directly addressing working children and children living and working on the streets—there is cause to believe that RTE could have a significant impact on the lives of children. 

Model rules have been developed and it will be now up to the States to work on ensuring that the most disadvantaged children are included in implementation strategies. There is still much to do. Indeed, while overall enrolment numbers have increased over the years, the numbers of children dropping out of school remains high — according to the Joint Review Mission of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (2009), nearly 2.7 million children drop out of school every year.

Importantly, these numbers obscure the large population of hardly recognised children: child labourers who have either never enrolled in schools, have missed many classes, sometimes several months at a time due to work, or who have dropped out during the early years of education.
In order to ultimately achieve Education for All, child labour laws and legislation must also be amended to include all forms of labour/work for children under the age of 14 at a minimum—while progressively moving to expand the age to 18—so as to ensure the education of the most vulnerable and excluded groups.

In rural areas, this means including agriculture within the banned schedule of occupations that children can engage in—it is generally accepted that children working in agriculture make up 75% of all working children.  The enforcement of child labour legislation and the focus on the “rescue” of children from work fails to address the systemic causes of child labour and school dropout.  A more holistic and integrated approach is required in not only tackling child labour, but ensuring that the RTE reaches the most vulnerable.

An integrated approach would entail not only ensuring strong, robust protection mechanisms against abuse, discrimination, exploitation and violence, but empowerment and social security options for poor families and children, policy revisions to ensure that comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration programmes are properly implemented for children removed from labour and facilitating collaborative linkages between government duty bearers and community-based protection committees and units, such as those called for under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. 

Input into RTE as well as mitigating child labour has come from a number of government and civil society agencies and organisations, yet, it is the group that stands to gain the most from education and effective child labour legislation and implementation—children—who have had few, if any, opportunities to participate in deliberations and decision-making processes of key development programmes and schemes which affects their lives.  Tokenistic measures abound, but real decision making and participation opportunities are few and far between.  

For those who venture into the rural and slum areas of the country and consult at length with children will know that the working child has much to offer and much that they want to offer. At the village level across the country, children’s groups, clubs and parliaments are actively engaged in ensuring that child rights are upheld and that all children have an opportunity to attend school.  Children have opportunities to speak with school teachers, school management committees and even Panchayats from time to time; yet, there has been little effort to institutionalise a system by which children’s participation—and real opportunities to make decisions—is made inherent in all government development programmes, schemes and educational institutions.

Under the Model Rules of the Right to Education Act, for example, one third of the members of School Management Committees should be made up of “local educationists/children in the school,” although even this is to “be decided by parents in the committee.” States could be bold in their own approach by not only allowing for children’s participation, but their decision-making inputs as well.  
It is here that children themselves can offer metis, a Greek word referring to “the knowledge that can only come from practical experience” to the child rights and education for all agendas. 

Children are the ones being denied their rights; it is only fair and prudent that we seek means by which they can meaningfully participate in abolishing child labour and ensuring education for all.  Moreover, children’s participation is enshrined within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as one of the guiding principles along with best interests, non-discrimination and survival and development.
As one young girl in Khagria district of Bihar poignantly told me, “we would draft a new law that requires all children to be in school and no child has to work ever; if only we were asked.”  It could, indeed, be that simple: children want the regulatory part of the Child Labour (prohibition and regulation) Act or CLPRA done away with; let’s focus on prohibition! Poverty is no longer an excuse to keep children from being in school and working; children who work in the agricultural fields across the country is not some romantic, pastoral vision of a simpler time gone past — it is the denial of vital growth and development opportunities for children, predominantly children from the most marginalised communities.  

Child Labour and irregular school attendance is too accepted and tolerated by all of us. Children’s meaningful participation in eliminating all child labour and ensuring quality and inclusive education may hold the key to fostering in a new wave of cultural and social non-acceptance of the denial of child rights. 
(David Brickey Bloomer is with Save the Children)




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