Young minds at work

Published : Jul 14, 2006 00:00 IST

Education is the best way to end child labour, says the ILO. But where are the schools?


JAHANGIRPURI is one of the larger resettlement areas in Delhi, a colony where visitors complain of a lingering stink. There are two things about it that one notices immediately: garbage heaps and children, sometimes as young as five years old, working on them.

They are rag-pickers. Their day begins at five in the morning. After noon, they wash up, eat something and attend an evening school run by Chetanalaya, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). It is not part of the formal, mainstream system of education, but in the circumstances it is the only thing that holds out some hope for the future to these children, the majority of whom belong to the minority community.

The children would love to go to `proper' schools, but it seems such schools are not interested in them, not even government schools. Akbar Ali, an office-bearer of the NGO, said he tried to put these children in school, but they failed the entrance test. He thought they were deliberately given difficult questions. Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer working on the rights of children, says the state is obliged to provide free and compulsory education to these children; the question of entrance tests should not arise.

Moni Nisar is from Kishanganj in Bihar and Tarannum from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. Daughters of artisans, the girls are in their early teens and have been out of school since they left their hometowns for Delhi. They have tried to gain admission in schools, but in vain. They say that they are asked to write entrance tests that are tougher than the questions set for other children.

Things get even more difficult for such children when the authorities ask them to furnish proof of residence, ration cards and birth certificates. The Deputy Director, Education, northwest Delhi, says no school can refuse admission. As for proof of residence and birth, she says the local legislator should be able to help.

In Jahangirpuri, Moni asks, almost desperately: "They will take us, won't they?" Everyone is "educated" in Delhi and she "feels ashamed" to say that she does not go to school. Ansarrun, 10, does not like to be a rag-picker. She goes to the Chetanalaya school after seven hours of work and on an empty stomach, but she is bright-eyed and hopeful. "I wrote the class 2 exam. They failed me," she says. Her teacher in the evening class, Najmul Aain, says he had coached the children for the entrance tests in line with the syllabus. "They come to the evening class with great interest and regularity. They even pay a fee of Rs.15 a month," he said.

Social Jurist, an organisation working on child rights and other issues, estimates that in Delhi alone there are 15 lakh child workers who are not in school. Of them, 2 lakh are engaged in prohibited occupations and the rest in non-prohibited processes. These children belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and minority communities.

There is no policy to reserve seats for Dalit children in schools at the primary level. Working children find it hard to get into even the government schools, and there are too few of them anyway. The public schools and elite government schools are reluctant to take them in. It is true that "learning centres" under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan absorb "out of school" children of all ages, but it is doubtful whether the effort yields any long-term results.

The drive to recruit children in schools under the Universal Elementary Education Mission in 2002 was fraught with irregularities, according to an educationist. Those who did not have birth certificates were asked to furnish affidavits.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on child labour has underscored the link between education and eradicating child labour. The ILO's second global report on child labour claims that over the past four years the number of children trapped in hazardous forms of work had actually reduced by 26 per cent, while there was an 11 per cent decline in all forms of child labour. The report is optimistically titled "End of child labour: Within reach". The decline in the number of children in the age group 5-11 in hazardous work appeared more prominent. The overall decline has been noticeable in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not so much in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. While ILO norms on child labour may have been one of the reasons behind the decline, it is becoming increasingly evident that legislation coupled with affirmative action, compulsory education and a political commitment to the eradication of child labour and arresting rural impoverishment have been the other significant reasons behind any concrete decline in the forms of child labour.

There are many people outside the ILO who feel that the categorisation of workplaces as hazardous and non-hazardous is a spurious one as any situation that compels the child to sell his labour, even in a seemingly non-hazardous occupation such as domestic work, is harmful for the child. The absence of a uniform age of employment has allowed child labour to flourish in several "non-hazardous" occupations. There is evidence from China and Brazil to show that in addition to poverty reduction, mass education has been critical in tackling child labour. There have been multiple entry points in dealing with child labour. But the greatest progress, the report says, has been in recognising the link between eliminating child labour and guaranteeing "Education for All".

But definitional problems persist. Not all economically active children come under the purview of child labour. And it is this ambiguity that has helped in the spread of child labour from hazardous to non-hazardous occupations. Of the 317 million economically active children in the age group 5-17 years, 218 million were child labourers and 126 million of them were engaged in hazardous work.

Even though there has been a decline, it is evident that the number of children in hazardous forms of work continues to be substantially high and the proportion of girls among child labourers has remained constant. But overall, boys are more exposed to child labour.

It is believed that higher the share of agriculture in a country's gross domestic product (GDP), higher is the share of child labour. But examples abound where predominantly agrarian economies adopted conscious policy decisions to eradicate child labour. Malaysia, for instance, initiated rural development programmes in the 1960s, accompanied by affirmative action to bridge the racial and rich-poor divide. Enrolment rates in 2002 were as high as 70 per cent.

China, says the report, is perhaps the only country in the world that has in the past 25 years taken more people out of poverty and enrolled more children in school. In 1949, only 25 per cent of children were in primary school; in 1982, a whopping 93 per cent attended primary school and the vast majority went to junior secondary school. China has a nine-year compulsory education policy.

This includes prohibition of the employment of children who have not had nine years of schooling. This, the report quotes from a related study, is probably a unique requirement among developing countries. China has ratified two very crucial ILO Conventions, No. 138 in 1999 and No. 182 in 2002. New regulations came into force banning the employment of children under the age of 16. The rules impose fines for violations.

Apart from China, the other striking example is that of Brazil where eight years of education was made compulsory, accompanied by a strong public policy commitment under the "Every Child in School" programme. Poor families with children of school-going age were given grants under the Bolsa Escola and Bolsa Familia Programmes. The ILO report says that a great social mobilisation took place in the 1990s, with the result that by 2004 only 2.9 per cent children were out of school.

Policy commitment also reflects in the ratification of ILO conventions. In 1999, the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention was adopted by several ILO member-states but an older one, Minimum Age Convention No.138, has not been very popular. This convention provides that the minimum age of admission to employment shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling. Even the United States has not ratified it. India has ratified neither Convention.

Economic crises are often the most important factor behind child labour. Tragically, some of the worst forms of child labour have occurred in the transition economies - the effects of transition from socialist economies to market economies in the states of the former USSR - where the role of the state declined.

Trafficking of children for the sex industry as well as for use in conflict have been the other manifestations of the balkanisation of Eastern Europe. Similar trends were seen, says the report, in the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, though it is doubtful that the effects would have been as severe as in the transition economies.

One big problem is that the will to eradicate child labour is wanting in the international community, and there is a lack of understanding of the link between education and eradicating child labour. It was only in 2002, at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Children, that a connection was made at the international policy level. Nearly 33 countries do not have a minimum age of employment.

One important concern that the report outlines is that while the right to education has been a key element of human rights since the establishment of the U.N, there has been a progressive shift away from the original position that education should be free. Experience, it says, shows that with the decline in public expenditure, with a move away from free and compulsory education, there is almost always a deterioration in access and quality that inequitably impacts girls, minorities, other marginalised groups and the poor.

The report reiterates that education is a human right and a public good and that all fees and charges for primary school should be abolished. Some African countries have shown the way with success. Enrolment rates in Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Malawi went up dramatically after the abolition of fees.

The quality of education matters too. The report is critical of the non-formal systems of education, which, it has been noticed, often turn out to be "second class education for second-class children". The ILO reports call for an evaluation of these systems to see if they have been "over-sold as a response to child labour". The report is also critical that the much-touted Millennium Development Goals do not have the elimination of child labour as a goal; as a result, it does not feature in poverty-reduction strategies. The World Bank Sourcebook on Poverty Reduction Strategies does not mention it all.

While debates may rage about what kind of work constitutes child labour or whether the systems of mainstream education are meaningful or not, for the vast majority there is no system of education in place at all. Social mobilisation without state support is meaningless. This has to be accompanied with affirmative action and compulsory free, quality education. As the report says, "If Brazil and China can manage this historical transition, other countries can too."

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