From glass-slippered Cinderella to Harry Potter, folklore from across the world has maintained that just about the worst thing that can happen to a child is separation from its parents. Thirteen-year-old Kumar had to endure an even worse fate when he was whisked away from his village in Ramechhap to look after someone else's children. A whole school of them.
Kumar is the youngest employee at a private school in Lalitpur. Tall and scrawny, Kumar and his oversized t-shirts are a regular fixture in the neighbourhood as he starts his day running errands for his sahuni. He then travels on the school bus helping young children get on and off. Most afternoons he can be seen by an outdoor tap near his building Ė washing and cleaning. With few friends and hardly any time to play, the quiet boy trudges from one task to another like a zombie as his sahuni watches.
The difference between what Kumar's life should be and what it is presently is all the more stark for his placement at a school that is meant to help young people explore their potential.
Except Kumar's. Unless you believe people should be bred to wash dishes and serve tea. The children at the school, whose bus he washes everyday, go on to become doctors, teachers and artists, while his capabilities have been deliberated capped by his sahuni. It's not just him. According to ILO and children's NGOs, there are 50,000 domestic children workers in Nepal and an additional 1.6 million child labourers in other sectors, which adds up to 26.6 per cent of the total population of children in Nepal Ė all of them wasted human potential caught in the multi-generational cycle of child labour.
Complicity in the idea that it is the bad luck of children like Kumar that is to blame for their situation makes any changes in their lives tricky. Childcare workers say a majority of people that employ them think they are actually helping the children in their charge, making child employment less of a stigma. The operating principle of "at least they are getting fed" overlooks all other needs over and above basic physical needs.
Research shows such children are less happy than their counterparts from the same income group. Kumar may be 3,500 rupees a month better off than his friends in Ramechhap, but he is by no means happier. Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a children's organisation that runs a child helpline and carries out interventions to rescue children from risky work environments, says that children rehabilitated with their parents with their support show remarkable changes in their outlook.
After running an intervention, CWIN supports children to prevent them from "being a burden to the family". As child labour is the direct result of parental poverty, some childcare workers argue that a blanket ban on child labour should be matched with wage increments for the adult workforce and assistance to others. That would prevent children from being employed in a waged market because they can be paid less.
The first step to reversing the trend is to call child labour by its correct name and to recognise that continuing subordination also has an impact on the future of the nation and its economy. They are like the plants that grow in your garden. You don't imagine they will remain scrawny near-dead stalks, but you feed them and water them and hope for them. It is not easy but it is not a task for supernatural fairies either. You just need a little common sense and whole lot of compassion to turn an old chappal into a glass slipper.
1. Akanchhya Gurung
Once again a relevant, a day to day life matter that makes us cry by realizing the pathetic conditions these children go under the masked name of child labour. Hats off to Indu Nepal for bringing out such realities and making us feel that pain in our heart.................Well done.....simply perfect article. I hope this attitude should be able to grow a few more hearts filled with love and compassion.
23 JULY 2010 | 3:17 PM NST
2. Sandhya Sharma
Until and unless ,the so called elite of Kathmandu and other cities of Nepal, are prosecuted for having a child labor in their homes, offices and factories ,this problem will¬†never be solved. May be people can start with socially ostracising the family members and friends who employ child labour in the name of educating them.
23 JULY 2010 | 7:56 PM NST
Well done Indu, this is a very grounded, well written and sensible piece...¬†
23 JULY 2010 | 9:04 PM NST
I must say, very interesting piece. We certainly need more writers like you, who cover Nepali social issues, and well. Child labor in Nepal is such a taboo subject, because we all know it exists and we all know that we are, if not equally, GUILTY. Hence, very difficult to root out from our society, since, even those in power to do something about it, employ and, if I may, "domesticate" them. What can one do? A blissfully oblivious state becomes more desirable. When I was in high school in Nepal, I worked with the ILO, in their effort to stop child labor by putting up a series of skits that highlighted that even if one employs children at their homes, one is promoting child labor. A child is a child. And, child labor is unjust.
23 JULY 2010 | 2:59 AM NST
5. Binod Uprety
I'm truly amazed by your writing,you do¬†have very good understanding,i mean "empathy" about child laboure.You worte a quality piece,it qualify to publish any prestigious news papers or magazines in the world.In a¬†so simple way any commoners can understand easily .
Good article. But one should go on to say that child worker NGOs cannot get past that first step of calling child labor by its correct name.
After naming it, what is required is the second step of ending it, which can only be done by an effective government providing and enforcing compulsory education. That means a government responsible to the people instead of living off forein donors. In Nepal that means a revolution, not NGOs.
25 JULY 2010 | 5:03 AM NST
#6: Go foment revolution in your own country, I'm sure it needs improvement.
25 JULY 2010 | 8:28 PM NST
8. Ramesh Nepal
It¬† really touches my heart when I read and hear about child laborer in Nepal. It has been more than a decade that child laborers was banned when after ¬†BBC¬†aired about child laborers in Nepal. As result, ¬†the carpet industry was almost collapsed by the year of 1994. Now, child laborers remains no less than decade ago in our social structure. I think, we need strict and punishable law for these kind of child abuse in Nepal.¬† Keep up with the good work.
26 JULY 2010 | 7:19 AM NST
Jagat #7, my own country does need improvement and I do support revolution everywhere.
But the revolutions western countries had more than a century ago already abolished child labor and did so by enforcing compulsory education, not by relying on NGOs. If people in western countries still had to put up with the conditions in Nepal, like child labour, there would be immediate revolutions because such conditions are intolerable. There is no such revolutionary situation in the west because even conservatives and reactionaries in the west don't advocate toleration of child labor. You will find that even our conservatives and reactionaries regard people like you with utter contempt for tolerating such treatment of children.
26 JULY 2010 | 5:25 PM NST
10. Unfortunate Ex-Pat
Well done, Indu! An excellent article - that it may be read by those who CAN make a difference... Sadly, I feel it may still take generations for the situation to truly change. Arthur - don't be naive as to the actual reality of current conditions in 'Western' countries... - and never forget that many of the intolerable conditions in countries like Nepal have deep-rooted origins far closer to home than you or I might care to imagine...
27 JULY 2010 | 11:19 PM NST
11. A. Khanal
Indu Nepal has brought out a very relevant article that our society needs to think, act and contribute towards ending "Child Labour" in any form. Excellent article. Keep it up!!!!!!
28 JULY 2010 | 8:36 AM NST
12. Dr B
I agree with all entries here that this is a well written article. I also agree with Arthur #6 & #9 on both counts although I may articulate this differently. Child labour is an outcome of two issues, values and laws, and in Nepal's case neither are present in sufficient strength to prevent such abhorrent exploitation. Clearly there are people whose values, morals, ethics etc do not preclude using children for personal gain however you want to define that. Likewise there are insufficient laws to tackle the issue and to punish the guilty.
Compulsory and enforced education is one such law, non existent in Nepal, which would virtually eradicate the problem at all levels. For example, whilst there are extreme cases such as the one highlighted in the article, what about the tens of thousands of cases where children are removed from school to help in the home or fields at harvest time? This is a constant problem some of us face in running a number of schools in the Kathmandu valley. Depending on the season classrooms fluctuate between being overcrowded or empty!
#10 I am truly intrigued by your comment ¬†"Arthur - don't be naive as to the actual reality of current conditions in 'Western' countries... - and never forget that many of the intolerable conditions in countries like Nepal have deep-rooted origins far closer to home than you or I might care to imagine...¬†¬†"
Could you enlighten me on the actual reality of current conditions in Western countries? I am unaware of non-compulsory education in my part of the West (Europe) or of institutionalised child labour. Also the question of the origins of child labour being rooted close to home perhaps you could enlighten me on this too?¬†
28 JULY 2010 | 1:33 PM NST
re #10, like #12 I am also intrigued by the reminder of "actual reality of current conditions in 'Western' countries". Although there are many social problems, I do not believe there is anything remotely like the toleration of child labour in Nepal.
On the "deep-rooted origins far closer to home than you or I might care to imagine..." perhaps this refers to the fact that child labor was still common in the West long after the West became¬† far more developed than Nepal is today. For example England in the nineteenth century. That is certainly true, but I do not see what light it sheds on anything, other than the importance of enforced action such as compulsory education.
29 JULY 2010 | 10:08 AM NST
14. Madan P Upadhyay
While Child labor remains an emotive issue and almost a taboo, notwithstanding State's State responsibility to safegueard its own own children and honour its inetrnational commitments such (Convention on the Rights of Childen and many others), is there an individual and collective responsibility for us ? Since getting the 1.6 million children out of child labour market is something no degree of law enforcement can influence, certainly not in a country like Nepal,where laws are more often flouted than followed, let us then do what we can, : be kind, look after their basic needs, send them to schools and allow them to come out of the misery some day. So much for individuals. Can the organized labor sector ensure that children are able to get to night schools so that¬† education will open the doors of opportunities for them in future. This is not the best solution, (certainly not a solution for Rights based approach!) but may be it is a good interim solution.
29 JULY 2010 | 2:10 PM NST
well written, thanks.
wondering if you could also do a follow up and look at child labor as part of a bigger issue of human resource management, and shed some light on trafficking, (labor, sex, etc)