Education is not a mere process, it has the potential to awaken children from the very core of their being, enabling them to unlock and develop the power within. Given the right environment and opportunities to study, education enables children to develop the unique inherent qualities they had possessed within themselves.
Take the case of Naveen Kumar, a 12-year-old boy hailing from a small village in Andhra Pradesh, who supported his father in selling vegetables from a very young age. Despite being enrolled in school, he had to spend long hours assisting his father at work, leading to irregularity in his attendance. Unable to cope with the pressure and being reprimanded by teachers regularly, Naveen was left with no option but to quit his education and work at a tea stall to supplement the meagre income of his family. It wasn’t a surprise that his father aided this decision, as Naveen’s schooling would be an impediment to the additional family income.
Had it not been for the intervention of the People’s Organisation for Rural Development (PORD)—an NGO that is supported by Child Rights and You (CRY) and working for marginalised children’s rights—Naveen’s life wouldn’t have turned around. Sustained counselling sessions with his father finally led to him agreeing to re-enrol Naveen to school. Back to doing what he loved most, Naveen’s confidence knew no bounds. His zeal to learn and hard work paid off, when Naveen invented an ecofriendly and cost-effective mechanism to cook food that causes zero pollution, a feat few pre-teens can boast of at such a young age. His invention won him a national award from the ministry of science and technology.
Rosaline’s story is no different. Growing up in the Mayurbanj district in Odisha, she dropped out of school to shoulder responsibilities to aid her family. Instead of attending school, she would leave home early morning to take the cattle out for grazing. Her elder sister, who had to give up her own dreams of education, did not want the same fate for her sibling and convinced her parents to re-enrol Rosaline into school. When in school, Rosaline’s talent of running was recognised and she started actively participating in sports events, emerging as a winner in a number of racing competitions. Today, she proudly represents her school at the district level and dreams to represent her country one day.
The innate talent of Naveen and Rosaline would have remained unrecognised had both of them continued to work as child labour. It goes without saying that every child possesses talent which blooms when provided an enabling environment. Until there are efforts to discover, such talent remains buried and unrecognised. In fact, allowing children to work is a gross violation of their basic rights. It not just deprives them of a healthy growth, mentally and physically, but it also has far-reaching implications on their overall development.
The Census 2011 data reveals there are 10 million children in the labour force in the age group of 5-14 years, of which a startling 5.2 million do not attend school. A large percentage of these kids work in family-based occupations, and will never be able to realise their full potential. Despite the government’s intent to address the rampant child labour in the said age group with the amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, children aged 5-14 years working in family employments would consistently face a challenge in continuing education.
The premise that education and work can go hand in hand is faulty in the first place. CRY’s on-ground experience reveals that children like Naveen and Rosaline and a million others in similar situations drop out of school, unable to bear the additional burden of education. Allowing children to work in family occupations, therefore, defeats the whole purpose of protecting children from exploitative labour. Furthermore, there are no monitoring mechanisms at a household level that can examine the number of hours of ‘help’ they put in and if they remain in schools. In fact, the startling number of children in the labour force who do not attend schools paints the real picture.
An analysis of a survey conducted on a sample scale of 9,963 children in the age group 5-18 by CRY reveals that, of all the children engaged in economic activity, 65% work for 5-8 hours a day, while 18% work for more than 8 hours. Close to 70% of the children in this category work for 6-7 days per week and 10% children work for 4-5 days. In case of children engaged in family occupations, almost 33% work for 8 hours or more in a day to assist their parents.
It is evident that, with such long hours of work, these children would be left with no time to study, play or explore other opportunities to realise their potential. Recreation and especially free play has been proven to be essential to the overall cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children. The survey also reveals that for most parents ‘playing’ is as good as sitting idle—the amendment in the law is ironically in line with this flawed assumption.
The survey also indicates that while many parents aspire for education for their children, 40-55% feel that a working child is a source of additional income to the family and is indispensable for paying off debts. In fact, 50% of the households feel that a child’s schooling alienates him or her from traditional occupation and 75% of the households feel that education doesn’t impart practical skills for life.
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Banning child labour in entirety without any exception is perhaps a solution to protect our children from being exploited. More importantly, we need to work on attitude change to stop child labour being looked at as a social norm. To enable millions of these children to truly realise their potential, which gets buried deep when we normalise their engagement in labour, everyone associated with the child—from the parents, to the teachers to the community—needs to come together to make the change a lasting one.
Komal Ganotra is director, Policy, Research and Advocacy for CRY—Child Rights and You. Views are personal