The only work a child should have is homework

SkillingIndia on September 3, 2012 Comments
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY

Moving towards giving a fulfilling childhood to every child in India!

A 14-year old boy, Shambu Kumar of the Giridih district in Jharkhand would descend into a 10-foot pit to illegally mine coal everyday. For him, Rs. 20 that he earned for a full day’s work was worth braving the real terror of being buried alive, or being arrested by the authorities. As the sole bread-winner in his family, Shambhu’s mother and three siblings depend on him to provide for the family. This is just one story of the many! According to the NSS 66th round (2009-10), there are 49.84 lakh child labourers across the country. 13.3% of children in the age group of 10-18 years are employed or engaged in some income earning activity. Of this, 42% comprises of casual wage workers and another 42% were unpaid helpers in household enterprise. In terms of social groups, 19.6% are from scheduled tribes, 15.1% are from schedule castes and 13.6% from OBCs.

Further, legislations in place have considerably lowered the number of child labourers from 17 million in 2002 (according to the 7th All India Education Survey, 2002) to around 4.9 million, estimated by the NSS 66th round, 2009-10, child labour continues to flourish. In fact, CRY research shows that the incidence has grown to 13.3% in the age group of 10-18 years. The problem of child labour is one that we as a country have been battling for decades, yet it still persists.

The key obstacle to effectively addressing the problem of child labour is, in fact, the attitude of the country as well as society at large towards children. It is reflected in the socially established view that it is acceptable for a child from an impoverished family to work. Indeed, a working child is often looked upon with approval and receives positive affirmation from many of us. At the policy level, the approach is piecemeal as different departments deal with different aspects of the problem and there is little or no convergence. It is most evident, however, in the discrepancies with regard to the age of the child in various legislations related to children.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child1 (UNCRC), to which India is a signatory, a child is an individual under the age of 18 years. The constitution of India requires an individual to be 18 years of age before they can cast their vote. Under the Juvenile Justice Act (2000) and the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1986, also know as PITA, a child is any person who has not completed 18 years of age. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 states that a man and woman should be 21 years and 18 years old, respectively, to be married. And yet, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, defines a child as a person who has not completed 14 years of age. In other words, it is okay for a child to work like an adult, but not enjoy the privileges of being an adult.

The truth of the matter is that child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. As a result, the child cannot fully develop his or her full potential, and will continue to subsist within a vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation.

The reality is a child who is compelled to work, his or her education and healthcare takes a backseat. In the 5000-odd villages and slums that CRY works in, there is evidence of child labour being intrinsically linked to the lack of free, quality government schools near home. Additionally, lack of infrastructure, teachers, and irregular teaching, are some key realities that push children out of school and into work. The Union Government in its Annual Economic Survey 2011-12 reports that 28.6% of the schools still do not have libraries, 60% still do not comply with the teachers pupil ratio of 1:30, 28% have no playground, 16.6% have no provision for drinking water, 45% do not have a school boundary wall, and more than half of standard 2 and 4 classes sit together with another class. Taking the case of Dhivya who comes from a family of bonded labourers in a remote village of Yeriputhur in Salem district, Tamil Nadu is a first-generation learner in her family, and she is currently studying in class 5. Two of Dhivya’s elder siblings have dropped-out of school after class 5 and are working; her other brother goes to school with increasing infrequency. This is because the nearest middle school is 5 kms away from their home, and the buses are few and far between. Paying for private transport is beyond the means of the family, and Dhivya lives in dread of being forced to stop her schooling once she finishes primary school.

Of course, Right to Education (RTE) Act has the sheer potential to have a positive influence on children’s issues outside the sphere of education is enormous. By providing children with free and accessible quality education, the RTE Act can help in bringing down at least some obstacles that influence parents to send their children to work, instead to school. Moreover, when clubbed with the Mid-day Meal Scheme that guarantees one nutritious meal for children at school, it would ensure, in effect, better health and nutrition for children. However, the law only covers children between 6 to 14 years and leaves out children between the ages of 14 and 18 years. This could lead to many children dropping out of school without having completed their education. The likelihood of these children being compelled to work also increases. One might even say that, in conjunction with the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the policies are designed specifically to sanction children to work.

What is more disturbing is that several States have still not implemented the monitoring mechanisms stipulated in the RTE Act; only 14 States have notified the formation of their State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), which would examine and review the safeguards under the RTE Act. This makes it impossible to accurately gauge the correct results since the Act came into implementation.

The link between education and child labour is undeniable. Child labour is a practice that erodes childhoods and traps children in a circle of poverty and exploitation. Free, quality education that is easily accessible helps to counter this. A literate, skilled population will find better jobs and opportunities, thereby improving the quality of life for the entire family. As adults, they would not send their children into labour as their own livelihoods would be stable and sufficient to provide for the family. It is imperative that the provisions of the RTE Act be carried out in both, letter and spirit. It is the best way to get our children out of labour and into the safe, secure and nurturing environment where they can experience what every child has a right to – a fulfilling childhood.

1The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the complete range of human rights for children, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. The Convention defines a child as anyone below the age of 18 years and spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should have, including the right to protection from economic exploitation (Article 32) and the right to education (Article 28). It is the most endorsed human rights treaty in the world, ratified by all, but two countries.

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