From child slav­ery to free­dom

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

It is a blot on the face of hu­man­ity that we have yet to erad­i­cate slav­ery – of chil­dren, no less. Not only does child slav­ery per­sist; the num­ber of child slaves, 5.5 mil­lion, has re­mained con­stant in the last two decades. They are bought and sold like an­i­mals, some­times for less than a pack of cig­a­rettes. Add to their num­ber the 168 mil­lion child la­bor­ers, 59 mil­lion out-of-school chil­dren, and 15 mil­lion girls un­der 15 who are forced to marry ev­ery year, and the sit­u­a­tion is be­yond un­ac­cept­able.

Eigh­teen years ago, the Global March Against Child Labour spear­headed a global move­ment to bring child labour and child slav­ery to the at­ten­tion of global lead­ers. Thanks to the in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion of fel­low ac­tivists, work­ers, ed­u­ca­tors, and busi­nesses, the cam­paign was a re­sound­ing suc­cess, lead­ing to the adop­tion of the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Con­ven­tion.

Clearly, how­ever, there is much work left to do. That is why the Global March Against Child Labour worked so hard – col­lect­ing 550,000 sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion – to push world lead­ers to in­clude strong lan­guage against child slav­ery in the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, which will guide global de­vel­op­ment ef­forts for the next 15 years. Among the SDG tar­gets is one that aims to “erad­i­cate forced labour, end mod­ern slav­ery and hu­man traf­fick­ing, and se­cure the pro­hi­bi­tion and elim­i­na­tion of the worst forms of child la­bor.”

But now it is time to back that prom­ise – one of 169 tar­gets – with con­certed ac­tion. Af­ter all, if child la­bor, slav­ery, hu­man traf­fick­ing, and vi­o­lence against chil­dren con­tinue, we will have failed to ac­com­plish the agenda’s over­ar­ch­ing goal of achiev­ing in­clu­sive and sus­tain­able pros­per­ity. And the re­spon­si­bil­ity does not lie only with gov­ern­ments; busi­nesses, civil so­ci­ety, and in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens must all con­trib­ute, not least by pres­sur­ing their lead­ers to make a change.

Con­sider the sit­u­a­tion in In­dia, where im­pend­ing re­vi­sions to two ma­jor de­vel­op­ment poli­cies – the Na­tional Education Pol­icy and the Child Labour (Pro­hi­bi­tion and Regulation) Act – are head­ing in op­po­site di­rec­tions. On the one hand, a new education pol­icy has the po­ten­tial to ad­dress child labour as a bar­rier to education and, more broadly, to im­prove the life prospects of mil­lions of marginalised and de­prived chil­dren. On the other hand, the pro­posed amend­ments to the Child Labour Act would erect new bar­ri­ers to fur­ther progress on education.

Specif­i­cally, the changes to the Child Labour Act would al­low chil­dren un­der the age of 14 to help their fam­i­lies in “non­haz­ardous” fam­ily en­ter­prises or the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. This may sound in­nocu­ous, but it fails to ac­knowl­edge a stark and undis­putable re­al­ity: Work for “fam­ily en­ter­prises” can be as bru­tal as any other kind. And the list of “haz­ardous” oc­cu­pa­tions is far from com­plete.

Be­fore be­ing res­cued by my or­ga­ni­za­tion, Bach­pan Bachao An­dolan, eight-year-old Ar­pita was forced to work 16-18 hour days in the home of her un­cle as do­mes­tic “help.” When we res­cued her, we had to break down the door. It was the dead of win­ter, and she was barely clothed and se­verely mal­nour­ished, cov­ered in wounds, and cow­er­ing un­der a rag on her un­cle’s bal­cony.

Like­wise, when we res­cued ten-year-old Mohsin and eight-year-old As­lam in 2007 from a sweat­shop – owned by their un­cle – where they made chil­dren’s cloth­ing for one of world’s largest gar­ment re­tail­ers, they were starv­ing. The jobs per­formed by Ar­pita, Mohsin, and As­lam would not be con­sid­ered “haz­ardous” un­der the amended act.

In a re­cent anal­y­sis, we found that one­fifth of the chil­dren un­der age 14 res­cued by Bach­pan Bachao An­dolan were work­ing in fam­ily en­ter­prises. More than 40% of the res­cued chil­dren were per­form­ing haz­ardous jobs – for ex­am­ple, work­ing in road­side restau­rants (dhabas) or man­u­fac­tur­ing gar­ments, leather goods, cos­met­ics, or elec­tron­ics – that would be al­lowed un­der the amended act.

There are mil­lions of en­slaved Ar­pi­tas, Mohsins, and As­lams. But if the pro­posed amend­ments are adopted, we will not be able to res­cue a sin­gle child un­der 14 years of age who is em­ployed by his or her “fam­ily” – no mat­ter how vile the con­di­tions of their servi­tude. The im­pact – not just on in­di­vid­ual chil­dren, but also on the fu­ture of our so­ci­ety – will be dev­as­tat­ing. On be­half of In­dia’s chil­dren, we call upon our par­lia­ment to do the right thing and re­ject the pro­posed amend­ments to the Child Labour Act.

Be­yond In­dia, the im­per­a­tive to pro­tect chil­dren is just as strong. If we are to re­alise the fu­ture promised in the SDGs, surely we must do ev­ery­thing in our power to pro­tect the fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights of ev­ery per­son, es­pe­cially the most vul­ner­a­ble. That is why gov­ern­ments world­wide must deepen their com­mit­ment to pur­su­ing child-friendly poli­cies and in­vest­ing in the pro­tec­tion and education of their young peo­ple.

My col­leagues and I have humbly done our part over the years, res­cu­ing more than 84,000 chil­dren from de­spi­ca­ble con­di­tions. It has not been enough to end the blight of child slav­ery, but to those chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, it has meant ev­ery­thing.

Still, far too many chil­dren re­main en­slaved, miss­ing out not just on their child­hood, but also on the chance for a happy, healthy, and pros­per­ous fu­ture. It is time for the world to stand up and lend its voice to those whose can­not. We must de­mand that our lead­ers ful­fill their prom­ise of en­sur­ing that ev­ery child’s life is free from ex­ploita­tion, en­riched by education, and full of prom­ise. Our gen­er­a­tion can and should be the one that ends child slav­ery for­ever.

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