Nepal | January 16, 2021

The working child

Waro Basnet
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child labour

Child labour creates a vicious cycle of inescapable poverty


It is said that children are the pillars of the world and their overall development should be the utmost priority of every country. However, according to a joint data provided by UNICEF, Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Bank, an estimated 168 million children aged between five to 17 all over the world are engaged in child labour.

In Nepal, millions of children are found chasing a living in unacceptable working conditions that highlight a serious violation of their rights. However, the silver lining is that child labour in Nepal has been decreasing by 50 per cent every year, according to ILO. Although the charts depict a steady decline in child labour, the progress in child development is still far too slow.

Current scenario

The Interim Constitution of Nepal, in force since 2007, contains extensive provisions that specifically address the rights of children. Despite the efforts against forcing children to enter the workforce, child labour still remains a major problem in the country. According to ILO’s statistics, Nepal still accounts for 1.6 million children between the ages of 15-17 engaged in child labour, out of which 62,000 children between ages 5-17 are engaged in hazardous work. There are three international conventions at work in Nepal — ILO Convention number 138 stating the minimum age for admission to employment and recommendation; ILO Convention number 182 and, ILO Recommendation number 190 concerning prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour. Although these conventions explicitly calls for immediate and effective measures to secure prohibition and elimination of worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency, the implementation of these are weak and many children are still forced into labour where they are heavily exploited.

Although Nepal’s constitution Article 22(5) says that children cannot be employed in factories, mines or other hazardous labour-centric work, and cannot be recruited into the police or armed forces, child labour practices are mostly seen in the very same fields — brick kilns, agricultural work, street hawking, mining and construction work, shoe shining, car washing, auto repair and conducting minibuses. Among these sectors, most have intolerable working conditions and exploitative work area where children are in risk of physically strenuous labour and domestic sexual exploitation. BinitaThapa, Programme Officer at ILO says, “Girls enter the labour world at an earlier age than boys and are primarily employed as domestic helps in households. 60 per cent of children in hazardous workplace are mostly girls.” She further says, “Girls are more likely to be engaged in the entertainment sector such as dance bars and hotels. This is also reflective of our society where boys are preferred over girls by most parents.” Trafficking of both girls and boys is also quite active in the country where children are trafficked both nationally and internationally for forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. “Children are routinely forced into paid and unpaid forms of work that may not be physically harmful to them. However, they are classified as child labourers when they are either too young to work or are involved in hazardous activities that may compromise their physical, mental, social or educational development,” says Rabin Nepali, Project Director at Save Our Soul (SOS).

Challenges aplenty

According to ILO, poverty is the single major factor responsible for the high prevalence of child labour in Nepal. With 25.2 per cent of Nepal’s population living below poverty line, families are often forced to send their children to work to sustain their family. Nepal suffers from widespread poverty leading to young children leaving homes to fend for themselves or to supplement their low household income. “In Nepal, child labour forms an important source of income for the child’s family,” says Nilkantha Acharya, Executive Manager at Association for the Protection of Children-Nepal (APCN).

The consequences of social inequities reinforced by racial or social discrimination is also the reason for wide practice of child labour. Children from indigenous groups in rural areas of Nepal are more likely to drop out of school to work. The inability of parents to earn and to decrease the economic burden in their family leaves the children with no choice but to enter the labour market whilst toiling hard to make money for their poor families.

Madhav Pradhan, President at Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN) says, “The explosive aspect in children’s work revolves around profit maximising urge of commercial establishments where children are made to work for long hours, paid low remuneration and are deprived of educational opportunities.” He further says, “Lack of social awareness is the major problem in the country. People living in rural areas don’t know the repercussions of child labour — physical and psychological. If the rural areas have strong educational facilities preparing young boys and girls for the bigger world then child labour will definitely be a thing of the past.”

According to Acharya, children are paid less than adults and those who employ children are more concerned with profit maximisation than the well-being of their employees. He says, “According to our research, working children are not paid for their work and are mistreated by their employers, so they ultimately end up on the streets.”

A large number of orphan children in the country also work in various sectors to sustain their livelihood. Children who do not have a valid birth certificate due to lack of awareness among their parents regarding the need of such certificates are usually unable to enter secondary school and sit for exams, forcing them to drop out and enter the labour world. Many children involved in labour miss classes, suffer from exploitation and poverty, and face various forms of ill-treatment.

Migration is also a major problem that contributes to the increase in child labour in Nepal. As per UNICEF data, migrant children are vulnerable to hidden and illicit labour. “Children are often seen migrating to urban areas in search of employment. The main reason behind this is lack of infrastructure in rural areas. Majority of these children are found in urban areas, especially in Kathmandu Valley and other industrial cities. Most of the children who are working as child labourers in Kathmandu came to the City as migrants,” says Pradhan.

The way out

Child labour cannot be eliminated by focussing on one determinant, like education or by enforcement of child labour laws. The government must ensure that the needs of the poor are met if it aspires to eradicate child labour. If poverty is taken care of, the need for children to work will not arise. But if people continue to use children as cheap labour stating their poverty as a good enough reason then the country will have both poverty and child labour till the end of time.

“The development of Nepal as a nation is hindered by child labour. In Nepal, children are growing up uneducated as they are more engaged in working rather than attending school for education. Hence, a cycle of poverty is formed and the need for child labour is reborn after every generation. Nepal has to address the situation by tackling the underlying causes of child labour through governmental policies and their proper enforcement,” says Nepali.  Many I/NGOs are also organising social programmes to address child labour. “We have recently organised the campaign, ‘The Green Flag Movement’ where our main goal was to eliminate child labour. The campaign was expanded to five wards in Lalitpur Sub-metropolitan City, and over 100 children working in domestic services have been rescued under the programme,” informs Thapa.

In 2016, the government also agreed to implement its first nationally represented survey examining forced labour on both adults and child workers. “The survey will be implemented with Nepal Labour Force Survey during 2017-2018 and cover 18,000 households. It will be the first endeavour undertaken by any country to systematically collect national data on the population experiencing forced labour,” adds Thapa.

Towards eliminating the Worst Forms of Child Labour, (2013–2016), Government of Denmark funded $582,000 to the 3-year programme implemented by ILO-IPEC which included the development and testing of training programmes, the preparation of the national child labour policy, a revised hazardous work list, and recommendations for upgrading national legislation related to child labour.

A version of this article appears in print on March 04, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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