With the recent proposal to amend the Child Labour Act 1986, the debate on child labour has flared up afresh. In these debates we, as adults, often talk about the ‘best interests of children’ and make decisions influencing their lives on their behalf. However well intended, we fail to see that our understanding of the best interest of children clashes with how they experience their realities.
Understand why children work
The Concerned for Working Children’s partnership with working children since the past 35 years has shown over and over again that children work because of a complex web of economic, social, political and cultural factors.
Our experience shows that a ban approach to child labour, which only addresses the demand side, ends up pushing children into more hidden and exploitative working places, since their need to work has not been addressed. Out of reach from protective systems, these children are made more vulnerable. The proposed Amendment continues to disregard this reality. The exemptions made to the ban are family based work and work in entertainment industries. These seem arbitrary especially as in these sectors children are highly vulnerable to exploitation.
Understand children’s realities
With one-dimensional one-size-fits-all solutions we are unable to look from children’s perspective to see what context specific challenges and needs they have. Simplistic solutions, like enrolling children into schools or forcefully ‘rescuing’ them without provisioning long-term support, are not viable alternatives. Raid and rescue makes children and their families feel criminalised for trying to deal with the reality they live in and in the long term it does not have a positive impact on their lives. This was articulated in the below statement made by the National Movement of Working Children submitted to UN.
“We are constantly told that we have to stop working and start going to school. But they do not realise that in our given situation of poverty and deprivation, work is a necessity. Even if we try to explain our situation, we are not taken seriously. If we are migrants, we are sent off to our villages. They do not realise that we left our villages because we had no livelihood there. In the raid process we the concerned children are not at all consulted. Our needs are not taken into consideration. The alternatives forced on us by the Government actually make our situations worse than before. These raids are a total violation of our rights and are not a solution to child labour.” (National Movement of Working Children 2003)
Nature and conditions of work vary from place to place and whether it is hazardous depends on age, gender, ability and conditions of work. To decide what is in the best interest of working children we need to try to look through the eyes of the child, to understand what constitutes a good solution in their given situation. An example of this was how children in a Panchayat in Karnataka facilitated by the Concerned for Working Children, made their own list of what work children can and cannot do From: Their document provided a win-win situation; the Panchayats response could be made context sensitive, and at the same time be able to address protective mechanisms children need to prevent them from working in hazardous conditions. Work can be an educative safe space where children learn skills, gain knowledge and prepare for their future, but only if these spaces are regulated and monitored.
Towards a fresh approach
Approaches to child labour can be in children’s best interest only when we try to understand their problems from their perspective. The proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act are failing to do so. The root causes are not addressed and the focus on child’s rights and voice is still missing. We need to actively include children and concentrate on why they work and what kind of systemic support they require not to engage in harmful work. Only a holistic, child rights centric approach, where the local conditions and realities of children are addressed, will make a true, positive and sustainable difference in the lives of children.
The Concerned for Working Children is a 35 year old not-for-profit secular, democratic private development agency, thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. We have been focusing on the issue of working children and children’s rights, with a special emphasis on children’s right to self-determination. We work in partnership with children and their communities, local governments and national and international agencies to implement viable, comprehensive and appropriate solutions to address the various problems that children and their communities face.
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