A high-level foreign delegate visits a top-level political leader, a candidate for the prime ministerial post, at the latterís residence in Kathmandu to secure political commitment on ensuring the rights of children. The leaders have a 12-year-old girl child labourer greet the delegate. No matter who says what, this reveals the reality of eliminating child labour in Nepal.
It is estimated that there are 215 million child labourers in the world. Of whom, 115 million are involved in hazardous work. The child labourers are concentrated in this part of the world - 125 million, or 61 per cent, are found in Asia and the Oceania, as against 32 per cent in Africa.
It has been long since any strategic child labour survey was conducted in Nepal (and what was done is still waiting to be published). Still, on the basis of available sources, 2.1 million children are said to be economically active, 1.6 million children are working and 127,000 children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour. The trend - either rising or declining - of child labour in Nepal is yet to be determined.
On one hand, available data show that the number of children engaged in economic activities is declining (from 40.9% in 1998 to 33.9% in 2008). On the other, previously unnoticed sectors, like embroidery (zari) and "entertainment" sector are attracting children. It is said that 18,000 girls below 18 years of age 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).
There are two factors that give vent to child labour: the push factor and pull factor. Stark poverty is one of them. But, in reality, it is evident that not all poor parents feed themselves on the blood money of their children, and it is not only the poor parents who throw their children to the workplaces. What needs to be addressed more acutely is the traditional mentality of the parents, mainly uneducated, who think that they possess every right to use their children in any way they want. A disturbing family environment and inquisitiveness of children about the urban setting 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, Nepalís illegal market of child labourers has always been informal, invisible, inaccessible and bonded. Further, the childrenís 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 doers, 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 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 charity begun at home.
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 while the non-government organisations are also doing their best in both 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 a few, the programmes of CWIN-Nepal, Concern-Nepal, CWISH-Nepal and Child Development Society are remarkable.
The state and non-government sector 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 the villages and opening the door to education for the children are some of the practical solutions. Rescuing children from the workplace sounds glamorous, but is something easier said than done.
Under the circumstances, the government is 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 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 caused the government to come up with the Child Rights Act (1991) and Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 2001. Childrenís 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 the 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.
The significance of the Master Plan lies in the fact that 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 any 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 governmentís 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. On this document depends the future of millions of children of Nepal, on whom the future of the whole nation depends.
(Manandhar is a Child Labour Officer at the Central Child Welfare Board)