Child Labour and the Voice of the Child
Originally posted on http://www.concernedforworkingchildren.org
At a meeting of the International Working Group on Child Labour at Bangalore in 1994, Ramu, a fifteen year old member representing the Bhima Sangha (Union of Working Children) strongly asserted:"Children need support to bring an end to child labour and to express themselves. Our previous experience has been that when children began to speak, grown-ups get up and leave. I would like to ask those here at this meeting to have patience when children speak and listen to them until they finish. You should tell as many people and children, including those who go to school, about our situation."
It has been more than twenty years and Ramu's hope for working children to be heard on the issue of child labour, remains unrealized. Thirteen years since ILOs launch of the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002, the voices of children are still missing from the international dialogue on child labour. This not only implies that international bodies like the ILO are themselves in a dilemma of how to truly actualize the right to be heard that is embedded within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) but also, more importantly, that the many finer points of the contextualized realities of the children, do not get fair representation in the conversation. This year, ILO focuses on the need to strengthen qualitative education as an important intervention which helps children access better life choices. This move comes alongside its push for aligning the ages of compulsory education and admission to employment as per the ILO's Convention No. 138 that states the minimum age of employment "shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years." While noone disagrees with education as an important tool to broaden horizons, this articulation of education as 'compulsorily' being the space that children are to occupy versus a space they 'choose' to occupy, is a telling one. It points to us that ILO continues to ideologically view children as passive recipients of adult imposed structures instead of people with agency who are learning to make their way through life by actively engaging with it. In so seemlessly conjoining it with the issue of child labour it seems to forget that a right cannot become a compulsion for the rights holder.
Conversations with children reveal that their experiences, understanding and need for education differ deeply, as they are expected to in a heterogeneous world. For education to become a viable choice for working children it needs to fit itself into the unique shape of the marginalized children's lives. It needs to respond to the timings of their water supply, to the support structure within their families to manage incomes and siblings, to their need for security in accessing educational spaces and many such issues. It also needs to recognize that all work is not bad. As even ILO has begun to recognize, 'decent work' is an equally empowering educational journey for children. Many working children have shared how work brings them dignity and independence. We need to recognize that education is a much larger concept for children, deeply intertwined with living and being, not to be simply reduced to the passing of lessons in cloistered spaces.
In India, the standard operating procedure to 'deal' with working children is to raid spaces and rescue them. Children's narratives have often revealed these 'rescues' to be deeply traumatizing experiences where they are dragged about with little or no explanation and much coercion. Often arbitrarily institutionalized or under threat enrolled into unfriendly schools - longitudinal studies of these cycles of 'rescue' show how most children return back to old work spaces. This is due to the fact that our institutions continue to fail children. They do not ask children what compels them to work, to leave or to stay in schools and give standardized one-fits-all solution to their complex needs. Until we listen to children, working solutions for working children's problems will continue to remain out of reach.