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Empowering the Future : Child Labor Eradication

Yesterday, June 12th was observed as the World Day against Child Labour. On that occasion, with this article, let's reflect where we are and where are we going with respect to Child Rights.

Child Labour has never been a particularly pretty part of society, but during the industrial revolution, the practice became even uglier than its earlier incarnations. Children were often put in dangerous industrial jobs and paid menial wages. Nearing a century after Independence, each year around the festival of Diwali, Indian  newspapers erupt with news on firecracker factory blasts, and each year, unmistakable is the number of children that die in these accidents; and again, each year, this brings our focus back to the problem of child labour, which has remained a malignant tumour despite all the attention it has drawn over the years.

But child labour stains many other sectors that feed our growing economy. Our embroidered carpets, silk saris, diamond rings, and festivities all have one thing in common – the deep, dark stain of child labour. So, how much blood do we have on our hands? 
  •  India, mainly Gujarat, cuts 70-85 percent of the world’s diamonds, making it a major source of export revenue. Cutting diamondsrequires adept and steady hands, precision, and good eyesight. It comes as no surprise, then, that this is one of the most labour-intensive sectors, and can, as a result, profit from cheap labour. And that’s where the children come in. Children as young as six years old are sometimes made to work eight to nine hours a day, working on cutting wheels and breathing in diamond dust.
  • An unorganised sector that is difficult to keep track of is liquor vending and transportation. To avoid excise duty, alcohol is illegally transported via children across borders. But the children that do get caught are not viewed as victims of child labour. Instead, they only appear in crime statistics of juvenile institutions.
  • About two-thirds of the country’s production of mulberry silk comes from Karnataka, where up to 50 tonnes of cocoons arrive every day. From hauling baskets of mulberry leaves, boiling cocoons, and extracting strands, to embroidering saris, children are employed at every stage of silk production. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, 350,000 children are involved in these processes. To extract threads, children have to immerse their hands in scalding water, which adds to the hazard from handling machinery, thereby causing severe infections.
  •  India’s Mines Act, 1952, prohibits anyone below the age of 18 from working in the mines, and even their presence in the dangerous fields. And yet, in the coal mines of Jharkhand, Meghalaya, and Madhya Pradesh, children starting from the age of eight are found working without basic protection like hard hats or steel-toed boots. Some are even seen barefoot, shovelling the dangerous mines and breathing suffocating coal dust.
  • The ‘carpet belt’ of India has its origins in the state of Uttar Pradesh, with thousands of looms saturating this region. are locked inside carpet shacks in cramped quarters, beaten regularly, given meagre allotments of food, suffer respiratory ailments from the high level of thread dust, and are force-fed stimulants to keep them working. They suffer deformed spines, malnutrition, vision ailments, and severe cuts from the sharp claw tool that is used to pull the thread down the loom.
The truth is that every fourth Indian child must go to work for his own survival and that of his family. There’s thus no denying the fact that the Constitution has been betrayed by successive governments at the Centre and in the states in the matter of guaranteeing children’s rights.


International Scenario
In Mexico, one out of every two teenagers won’t finish high school. In India, only a third of students get their high school diploma. Even in the U.S., around 5500 high schoolers will drop out before the end of the day.
What do all these countries have in common? Under their national laws, dropping out of high school is perfectly legal.
That’s not the case everywhere. In Portugal, Germany, New Zealand and over two dozen other countries around the world, completing secondary school is required by law—setting kids up for success as adults.
This is but one example of how countries’ policy choices about education shape their children’s futures. About thirty years ago in 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which, among other things, calls on every country to enact legislation that will reduce both social and financial barriers to staying in school. Today, the CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with 194 parties (the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan are the lone holdouts).
Still, 30 years after committing to protect every child’s right to education, have these 194 governments followed through on their promise?
When it comes to primary school, the short answer is the overwhelming majority have, but not all: primary education is both free and compulsory in 90% of countries that have ratified the CRC. Among the remaining 10%, girls are more likely to suffer the consequences: when families can only afford to send one child to school, sons often take precedence, exacerbating existing gender gaps in access to education and economic opportunity. According to UNICEF, 31 million girls of primary school age are out of school.
Furthermore, nearly a quarter of countries that ratified the CRC charge tuition for at least some portion of secondary school; 14% impose fees the first year. This greater barrier to secondary education in part reflects less targeted global commitments: while the CRC explicitly obliges parties to make primary education free and compulsory, it only encourages free secondary school (though it does require that secondary be “available and accessible to every child”).  The fees are affected by country income but driven by political will. There are countries in every income group that have managed to make secondary school tuition free, including 38% of low income, 78% of middle income and 94% of high income. Nearly half of the countries that charge school fees for secondary school devote less than four percent of their GDP to education—firmly below the global average expenditure.
What is to be done?
Yet while removing tuition barriers is an essential step toward increasing school enrolment, it’s not enough alone. Strengthening access to education also requires strengthening children’s other rights—such as protection from child labour and child marriage. Without shielding children from these other conditions that interfere with their right to education, countries will continue to fall short of their CRC commitments.  
Today, nearly 168 million children are still engaged in labour worldwide. Children working long hours on school days are much more likely to drop out of school. CRC States parties have made notable progress toward protecting younger children; 75% prohibit children ages 14 and younger from working more than six hours on a school day. However, protections decline sharply at age 16; only 7% of countries that ratified the CRC extend the same protections to 16-year-olds, creating yet another barrier to completing secondary school. 
Similarly, while rates of child marriage have fallen over the past two decades, this practice continues to disproportionately harm girls and seriously jeopardise their education.
Despite their stated commitments to upholding children’s access to schooling and healthy development, 21% of countries that ratified the CRC let girls be married legally with parental consent at age 15. Married girls are much less likely to complete school and far more vulnerable to early pregnancy and health risks.
Passing laws to fully implement the CRC is a critical first step toward ensuring eradication of child labour and education for all the world’s children—and reducing gaps in access between boys and girls. In India, the Ministry of Labour and employment have ratified initial policy steps in the right direction, but their implementation and enforcement at the grassroots level remains a task the Union has not delved into with full force. It is still up to the Non-profit sector to enforce these policies or strategies.
We as policymakers, researchers, and citizens can identify the successes and gaps in our own countries. Further, our comparative data reveal that guaranteeing the right to education is feasible across both regions and income groups. Whether or not it’s too late for the millions of youth who will forego secondary education this year, it’s not too late for policymakers worldwide to make good on the promises they made 30 years ago.
-SR

[Statistics Sources - Offical Deparmental Websites]
[Image Sources - ILO and gsdmagazine ]


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