Stop Child Labor – School is the Best Place

Let me start by by first making two somewhat provocative statements: poverty is not the main cause of child labor. The second is: the policy of governments and international donors is too much focused on the worst forms or the abusive forms of child labor instead of all child labour and the relation between education and child labor.

I’m saying that on behalf of Free a Child. What this campaign is working on is to redefine the struggle against child labor in its relation to the right to full-time education, and to link that to the role of international donors like ILO, UNICEF, World Bank, national governments, and so on.

First the poverty issue. It’s very remarkable that in two states of India, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh and l, states which are not so rich , most of the children are going to school and there is very little child labor. Of course children still do work after school but most of the children go to full time education. Well, a lot of people don’t expect this because the general impression is: if you are a poor child in India you cannot go to school. This is not the case. There is a third state in India, Andhra Pradesh, where there is now a movement for the last ten years, led by the NGO MV Foundation which has brought about 250.000 poor children, mostly from agricultural labourers’ and small farmers families, to school., Among these 250.000 are a lot of girls and boys tied up by so-called debt-induced bonded labor, in fact a form of slavery, as well as a lot of girls who sometimes who have been working long days in the households. So, that shows it is possible to bring poor children to school, by investing in education, by local mobilization, by – of course – free education and – especially important – by establishing the social norm amongst communities that a child should be in school and not work. I cannot stress enough the importance of this element.

The social norm has to be developed among people that it is not right for children to work. What is happening in many instances where we target too much on specific forms of child labor, is that we condone a lot of other forms, which is also preventing children from attending full-time education. But the Convention on the rights of child is clear enough: any work that is either hazardous or interferes with the education of the child should be prohibited. So, the Convention does not talk about the worst forms of child labor alone, however important of course it is to include these children.

Our contention at the Free a Child campaign is that you can in fact only reach those children who are in the worst forms of child labor if you address the whole population of child laborers. So, our problems with policies of governments and international donors is that they are reinforcing the idea some children can in fact not go to full-time education because they are too poor and have to work.

Everybody agrees education is important and more money is needed and our campaign strongly supports that. However, donors often have no vision how to deal with the issue of child labor as a part of, as an aspect of educational funding and policies. What you often see is that the whole focus is on the infrastructure, on the quality of education, in the sense of providing school books, training teachers – which is is all extremely important – but they forget about the population of out-of-school children, which for example in a country like India and many other developing countries, is quite large. So the school system itself has no strategy how to include out-of school children and does not feel responsible to bring those children into school which are now out of school. Thus the school system needs to do more than just providing education.

On the other hand, child labor strategies often lack an entry point or link into the formal education system and do piece by piece projects on their own. These are the issues we are trying to address and we are in fact saying there is too little linkage between the two elements of child labor and education.

Take the Dakar framework of Action: no mention of child labor. Take the World Bank, the major funder of education projects: they only talk about harmful child labor. Does that mean every child which is not in full-time education? I don’t think so. So, in fact, coming back to the poverty argument there is a big lack of political will to bring children to school. There are is a lot of indifferently badly functioning schools. So, what can be done?

What we suggest is the following: if educational funding is being put under conditions by these big donors, what they should do is not only fund education in terms of infrastructures and teachers etc., they should also fund parents who send their children to school and reduce the financial burden of eductaion on the family. That is why Free a Child gives money directly to parents and caregivers, on the condition the child is going to school.

One important point which we still want to make mention is that the whole bureaucracy of the school system itself pushes out a lot of, especially poor, children. The school system itself is often so insensitive to children by asking for birth certificates, medical certificates etc. It should be the responsibility of the school to help parents with it, while now it is very often the responsibility of poor illiterate parents who don’t know how to deal with it. So, these kinds of insensitive bureaucracies drive out a lot of poor children. Helping children and their parents to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of going to shool should also be part of the education system and is a part of Free a Childs programs.

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