This World Day Against Child Labour, let's learn about the children who don't get their childhood

Puja Marwaha, CEO of CRY writes, that children who drop out of school and are pushed into work, continue to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, while missing out on a healthy childhood
Every eleventh child in India is a child labourer
Every eleventh child in India is a child labourer

Like many of her friends, Sunita Devi was married off as soon as she had reached puberty at the age of ten. She gave birth to her first son at fourteen; and then four more – two daughters and two sons. By the time her eldest was ten years old, she realised that her family needed an extra pair of hands to earn. So off the little one went with his father, to help him earn his living and to provide for his brothers and sisters. And as it happened, he’s been working ever since. This is not a figment of my imagination – it is the life story of many women in our country, and of their children as well.

Coming back to what happened next... There was at least one person keeping watch over the whole process of distribution of financial responsibility within Sunita’s family – Pinky, Sunita’s second child. While other children would have seen this as normal and probably mentally prepare themselves to follow suit, Pinky chose to question. And for some reason, the only answer she could find was at school. As she grew up, she kept trying to and managed to convince her parents to let her and her other siblings continue with their studies. Then she went further, by challenging herself to not let any child in her village to drop out of school to go to work. With time, she found believers in her cause – Jawhar Jyoti Bal Vikas Kendra (JJBVK), a local grass roots level non-profit (supported by CRY – Child Rights and You), which works in Samastipur, Bihar, breaking myths about child labour and spreading awareness about the importance of keeping children in school.

However, not every child in India is as lucky. Pinky’s own elder brother wasn’t. Today Sunita Devi is remorseful, “I can never forgive myself for allowing the little kid to be pulled out of school to go off to work as a shoemaker in Kolkata. If only I had known better, my child would have had a better chance at life than becoming a daily wage earner like his father.” When she speaks of her son, she doesn’t know that she is actually talking about one out of every four children in India who is out of school, and every 11th child who is a child labourer (according to Census 2011). The state of children in our country is a simple calculation away then, with India being home to 472 million children.  

What happens when a child is asked to drop out of school to earn their living? The child, instead of having teachers, friends, books or summer holidays is subjected to employers, colleagues, work hours, no leaves and no childhood. School keeps children away from labour, and hence safe from many other potential dangers of physical and mental abuse as well as health issues. It’s simple really. Every child in school is essentially an opportunity - for an equal start, a chance to grow to their full potential, and thus becoming contributing citizens. A child engaged in labour, on the other hand, is perpetuating the cycle of poverty and losing the scope of change in situation.

The amendments in the Child Labour Law (CLPRA) prohibits children under the age of 14 years to be engaged in work in external workspaces but allows them to participate in family enterprises after school hours. Essentially, we are expecting them to engage in double shifts – without a scope for recreation, rest, for preparing themselves for the next day, or to be the child that they are.

And what happens when a child is rescued from labour and sent back to school instead? Let me tell you about Naveen, a teenager hailing from a small village in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh who used to assist his father, a vegetable seller, from a very young age. Needless to say, he was irregular in school because most of his time was spent at the shop. Balancing both was difficult for a child and very soon Naveen dropped out. He started working at a tea stall to supplement the income of the family. Of course his family did not protest.

When People’s Organisation for Rural Development (PORD), a local non-profit (supported by CRY), intervened to counsel his parents and got him back to school, Naveen not only justified this second chance, but surpassed himself. Back in school, he actually created an eco-friendly and cost effective mechanism to cook food causing zero pollution, an invention that won him a national award from the Ministry of Science and Technology. As I write this, he is preparing for his new role as an Ashoka Youth Venturer, aiming to change many more lives around him.

True, Naveen is an exception, and we still don’t know what Pinky will achieve when she is older. But the fact that they are both in school keeps the hope alive that their adulthood will be different from their parents’. A child in school, is one less child labourer. And one less child labourer, is one more childhood - lived and celebrated.

June 12 is observed as World Day Against Child Labour, to focus attention on the global extent of child labour and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it.

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