When it comes to children-not your healthy, well-fed, well-cared-for, school-going children, but the ones who do all the housework, keep rooms clean, cook and wash-the truth is as hard as it gets. The I/NGO worker for child rights, the "progressive" professional, the old-money family or the nouveau riche, hardly anyone can do without domestic child labour.
Take these two examples.
Shanti (not her real name) has been working at a professor's house in Kalimati ever since her mother left her and her younger sister there six years ago. Shanti was nine then. Today when people ask her age, she tells them she is 17. But her physique tells a different story-she looks barely 14. "Father told me that I should tell people I am 17 if they ask my age," says she referring to her employer.
Shanti's mother re-married after her father's death. She has never even seen her stepfather and really doesn't want to, although she does miss her mother. Her job at the professor's house requires her to get up at 4 in the morning, clean the house, prepare the food for cooking (though not actually cook it, since she is a \'lower caste' and her orthodox Bahun employers do not allow her to touch cooked food), clean the dishes and do all the laundry. By the time she goes to bed, it is almost 11PM.
There are five people in the family she lives with, apart from her sister who is two years younger than Shanti is. Though she calls everyone in the family by family names-bua, mua, dai and didi-it is normal for Shanti to get sworn at or slapped if she makes a mistake.
A little coaxing and Shanti reveals more. These days the distinguished professor has even started touching her here and there when he is alone with Shanti. Her younger sister is luckier as a kind-hearted Canadian woman has been sponsoring the child's education for the past year at a nearby school. Shanti also wants to go to school, but her employer refused to let both sisters off.
Shanti does not receive any money for the work she does, and no one from her family in Kavrepalanchowk district come to visit her.
For all that, Shanti and her sister are much better off than Maya, comparatively speaking. Thirteen-year-old Maya, who comes from a village near Pokhara, has been working in a civil servant's house in Lalitpur for the last three years. She has to do all the daily chores and lately, according to the next-door neighbours, something more even. For the last few weeks she has been complaining to them of stomach pains. When questioned, she reveals the horrors she has to go through. Her employer has a 25-year-old unmarried son who runs a shop. In early October, when the parents were in Pokhara, the son raped Maya and has been doing so constantly since, even when his parents are in the house. Maya has missed her period the last two months.
One could detail such stories by the hundred. And it's always the same. Most children working as domestic help in the capital come from poor families outside the Valley, for whom survival is the primary question. Promises are made of education and/or a job once they reach maturity, and meanwhile, the salary is little more than food, clothes, and those often inadequate. The children's families are so hard up that they find it easy enough to leave the children behind in the hope that somehow their chances in life will improve if they work in the city. One year down the line, the child will have got used to the life of a domestic, with hardly a chance of anything better.
A rapid assessment of the situation of domestic child labourers in Kathmandu conducted by the National Labour Academy-Nepal says that one in every five households in Kathmandu employs children as "domestic help". The 2000 survey found 21,191 domestic child labourers in Kathmandu metropolitan city alone, nearly 70 percent of whom were below the age of 14, and 46 percent, girls. The total estimated for the entire country was 42,674. The survey also revealed that Bahun households led in employing child labour, with Newars coming second. Another factor indicated was the absence of dalits, or supposedly low-castes, among domestic child labourers.
Section 5 of the 1992 Labour Act prohibits the employment of children in any enterprise. The Act describes a child as a person who has not attained the age of 14, while a minor is one between 14 and 18. The Section also prohibits employment of minors between 6PM and 6AM, except under prescribed conditions. Then there is the Child Labour Prohibition Act 2000 that provides for three months' imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000 for anyone employing children below 14 as workers. But these are only on paper. The reality is totally different.
It is not that civil society is turning a blind eye to the plight of these children. Organisations such as Child Workers In Nepal (CWIN) have been working for years now to help them. In November 1998, CWIN, with the approval of the government, started the first telephone helpline for children. Anyone with information regarding a child undergoing physical or mental abuse can ring 271000 for CWIN to investigate the matter. If the matter needs to be pursued legally, the organisation bears all the costs. The abused child is then brought to a centre maintained by CWIN and kept there for a maximum of three months, while ways are found for the child's normal return to society.
Last year, CWIN rescued 28 children, 20 of them girls, in this way. A majority were being physically tortured. But these are only the reported cases, and we will never know that fate of many others. Bimal Thapa of CWIN puts it bluntly, "We will never be able to fully eliminate child labour, but at least we can try and do something about it."
Then there is the Legal Aid and Consultancy Centre (LACC), which aims to provide free legal services, especially to women and girl labourers working under dangerous conditions, and also has a telephone helpline. But Dr Shanta Thapalia of LACC says that although in many cases the court decides in favour of the abused and grants compensation, hardly anything happens in practice. "In principle we are able to provide justice to the victims, implementing it is however another difficult task" she says.
After a lot of hue and cry by international bodies like the ILO and UNICEF, the government has also started showing some interest. It is said to be in the process of ratifying the ILO's Convention No 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999). At the "Best Practices Conference" held in Washington in May 2000, the Nepali government announced its commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by immediately implementing programmes of action to remove children from intolerable situations and provide for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
That sounds enthusiastic, but nothing much has really happened. Which is not at all surprising, since even existing laws have not been acted upon. The Labour Act may have made child labour illegal, but so far there has been no recognition that this practice exists, and no official study has been conducted to find out how many children are working as child labourers.
The truth is that no matter how many organisations come up to help unprivileged children, no matter how many international covenants the government signs, no matter how many surveys are funded, no matter how many measures are announced to check the working conditions of domestic child labourers, this modern-day slavery may not end unless civil society wakes up and refuses to take any other child unto its service. No matter what justification is given for the practice, there is no really reasonable excuse to rob children of their future.
On International Human Rights Day last week activists and media persons raised their voices against rights abuses in society. At the end of the day they went back to their cosy homes, and doubtless many gathered their families around them and ordered the 14-year-old "domestic help" to bring them tea and snacks.