Elimination of child labour in Nepal

Razen Manandhar

A high-level foreign delegate visits a top-level political leader, a candidate for the prime minister’s post, at the latter’s residence in Kathmandu to discuss on the importance of political commitment on ensuring the rights of children. The leaders make a 12-year-old girl child labourer greet the delegate with a cup of tea. No matter who says what, this evidence reveals the reality of the elimination of child labour in Nepal.

It is grossly estimated that 215 million children are involved in child labour in the world. And 115 million of them are in hazardous work. The child labourers are accumulating in this part of the world — out of the total, 125 million (61 per cent) are found in Asia and Oceania, which is a surprisingly bigger number than that of Africa, which bears only 32 per cent of them.

It has been a long time since any strategic child labour survey was conducted in Nepal (which was done is still waiting to be published). Still, on the basis of the available sources, it is quoted that there are 2.1 million children are economically active, 1.6 million children are working and 127,000 children are engaged in the world form of child labour. The trend — either rising or declining — of child labour in Nepal is yet to be determined. On one hand, the available data shows that the number of children engaged in economic activities is declining (of 40.9 per cent of 1998 to 33.9 per cent in 2008). On the other, previously unnoticed sectors, like the embroidery (zari) and the “entertainment” sector are attracting children. It is said that 18,000 girls below 18 years are working in massage parlours, cabin restaurants, dance bars and other similarly vulnerable sectors. This is now being addressed as commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).

The major causes, in the Nepali context, which vent the trend of child labour should be discussed in two factors: the push factor and pull factor. On one hand, the parents tend to send their children with their little unskilled hands in the cruel labour market because of presumably stark poverty. But, in reality, it is evident that not all poor parents feed themselves with the blood money of their children and it is not only the poor parents who throw their children into workplaces. What needs to be addressed more acutely is the traditional mentality of the parents, mainly uneducated, which develop make-believe in their mind that they possess every right to use their children in any way they want. Disturbing family environments and the inquisitiveness of children to be familiar with urban settings are also to be blamed to some extent.

On the other hand, the employers, almost inaccessible to government authorities, are always calling unskilled, intimidated, abandoned and underage workers to work under hazardous do-or-die conditions.

Thus, Nepal’s illegal market of child labourers has always been informal, invisible, inaccessible and bonded. Further, the children’s job is seasonal and the employers can get rid of them whenever they want. The children engage themselves in a variety of works. Nevertheless, social workers have pointed out that children are working in mostly urban areas as domestic workers, porters, helpers (in vehicles), stone crushers, massage does, waiters, dancers, sex workers, brick makers, and embroiders.

Lack of strong legal provisions and inability to implement the existing provisions provoke the wrongdoers to unremittingly exploit the children. On top of it, our feudal structure of the society has disseminated an idea of false prestige — they argue that providing a minimum of facilities to children, that is, feeding them with left-over food and sending them to government schools when there is no work to do is a charity they begin at home. By doing this, they not only disregard the 12 years old law but also damage the future of thousands of children.

The scenario is of course gloomy, filthy and horrible. But it is not that nobody is working on the child labour issue. The government is working hard to promulgate the most child-friendly policies and the non-government organizations also doing their best in both the prevention and rehabilitation of child labourers. All over the country, 40 plus NGOs are working in the sector of child labour and child protection. Only to name some, the programmes of CWIN-Nepal, Concern-Nepal, CWISH-Nepal and Child Development Society are remarkable — with limited sources, they are diligently working to build a child-labour free society.

The state and non-government sectors are executing two parts of their Herculean task — of making the parents retain their children in their families and rehabilitation of the children from their workplaces. Providing chances of income generation to the parents in villages and opening doors to education for the children are some of the practical solutions. Rescuing children from the workplace sounds glamorous, which is something easier said than done.

Under the circumstances, the government of Nepal is again going to implement a National Master Plan on the elimination of (the Worst Forms of) Child Labour in Nepal (2011–2020). The leadership of the Ministry of Labour and Transport Management in this regard is historic and the enthusiasm, spirit for collaboration and cooperation as well as institutional commitment from all government as well as a non-government sector will surely make it successful.

This is not the first time we are talking about child labour and its elimination. The issue came right after Nepal signed the United Nations Convention on Rights of Children in 1990. This has caused the government to come up with the Child Rights Act (1991) and Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 2001. Children’s issue is such a cross-cutting issue, directly affecting the whole population and future generation of the country, that none of the major government documents can think of leaving this crucial issue untouched. So, the same issue has been addressed rigorously, to name some, in Education Act 1971, Human Rights Commission Act 1997, Juvenile Justice Procedure Regulations 2006 Human Trafficking and Transportation Act 2007, and finally in the Interim Constitution 2007. These legal provisions only reflect the spirit of the international commitments Nepal has made, e.g., the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention №182 (ratified 2004) and the ILO Conventions on forced labour — the Forced Labour Convention (1930) №29 (ratified 2002) and the Forced Labour Convention (1957) №105 (ratified in 2007).

Against this background, we can say that lots of time, effort and money have been spent to establish the idea of elimination of child labour in Nepali soil. Apart from this, along with the changing pattern of education, employment, lifestyle and impact of international phenomena, it is natural that people of Nepal have become more exposed to the ongoing trend of rescuing children from the torment of servitude and showing general regard to the future of children. But the fate of children in Nepal has been barely improved.

Here comes the significance of the Master Plan. This document outlines our “aims to completely eliminate child labour by 2020 but to have its worst forms eradicated 2016, in alignment with goals set out by the international community”. Obviously, the document itself cannot do magic if it is not supported by the stakeholders — from the top-level policymakers to the parents themselves. Shortcomings of the master plan cannot be denied but the hope of all working on this sector lies in the government’s acceptance of it as soon as possible. The Master Plan, which should have been guiding the policymakers, bureaucrats and social workers from the beginning of 2011 is yet to be endorsed by the government. It cannot be encouraging. On this document depends the future of the million children of Nepal, and on whom the future of the whole nation depends.

The Rising Nepal 20120612

(Pictures are taken from various websites. Manandhar was working as Child Labour Officer at Central Child Welfare Board. June 12 is regarded as International Day against Child Labour)

A writer, a journalist, an Esperantist and a student of Buddhism; and works at Bodhi TV in Nepal.