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     Volume 8 Issue 73 | June 12, 2009 |

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Special Feature

Banning Child Labour

Is it the Only Solution?

Elita Karim

Morjina is a 14-year-old girl who has been working as a domestic worker and living with

Children employed at these brick kilns work 10 hours a day in two shifts with only one break for lunch in the afternoon. They earn Tk. 50 per day, less than USD 1 a day. Cox's Bazaar, Chittagong. by: Adnan, DrikNews.

the family since she was 12. Even though she is not sent to school like other children, she is given an informal education at home, taught to read and write, draw with colour pencils and allowed to watch television and go out to the park once in a while with the other children in the family. Her father Mohammed Amin Miyah visits his daughter every other month all the way from Mymensigh and collects her salary as well. “My daughter is happy, is living in a good environment and is also earning money,” he says. “I would like her to go to school like the other children but I won't be able to provide her with proper food and other needs at home.”

However, not everyone is as lucky as Morjina. Hundreds of families prefer to employ adolescent girls simply because these children are fast learners in the kitchens and have very limited options in life. Many domestic workers, however, are sometimes subjected to sexual and physical torture and harassment.

Not only young girls, but several young boys are also put to work as young as six or seven in factories and other places. Abdullah is a nine-year-old boy who delivers lunch to offices in Motijeel. His mother Rabeya (known as Rahima's Mother by her employers) has been working as a domestic worker for the last eight years at a home in Motijheel. Around 12-13 years ago, Rabeya was seen looking for work from home to home, besides begging on the streets, with her 4-year-old daughter Rahima. She finally found work in a garment's factory, but later left when her husband came to take her and the daughter back home to their village. After a couple of years, she ran away from her village, when her husband suddenly disappeared and his debtors would come hounding a pregnant Rabeya and her home. She finally found work at a home in Motijheel and has been working there since. She was very happy when she gave birth to a son, Abdullah. As soon as Abdullah turned six, he was put to work at another home when eventually he began to work for a shop owner who made lunch boxes for office goers in the area. Every day from 12-2:30 pm, Abdullah will deliver lunch and the rest of the hours would be divided between spending time at the shop and with his mother in the evenings. “I am very happy,” says Rabeya. “The family I work for has also taught him to read and write. He can write his own name now! My son will be able to take care of his mother and older sister when he grows up.”

The government is now taking steps to abolish child labour completely. Even though a commendable act on the government's part, it is still not going to solve the problem. There are several loopholes in the system, which could probably increase the poor person's dilemma instead of solving it. According to the National Child Labour Policy 2007, some of the major reasons behind children working in dangerous and hazardous work places are poverty and lack of education. Poverty is increasing day by day in our country and education comes way down in the list of priorities, especially to those who do not get enough to eat. If Child Labour is finally made illegal in Bangladesh, what are the alternatives that the government plans to provide to the thousands of families who depend on the earnings of their young children?

Children work along with adult workers while being regularly exploited. Dublar Char, Bagerhat District. by: Munem Wasif, DrikNews.

According to a recent Daily Star report, there are at least 40 laws relating to children which actually add a lot of confusion to defining the legal age limit. Professor Mizanur Rahman of Dhaka University, a legal expert, says that these contradictory laws have created anomalous situations which prevent us from even defining who a child really is. One of the many contradictions regarding Child Labour Law is the age limit of the child according to which he or she might be permitted to work. The Labour Law 2006 very vaguely mentions that children cannot be employed legally. Then again, children between the ages of 14-18 have been permitted.

Syed Sultanuddin Ahmed, the Assistant Executive Director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) seems to think that even though there are slight contradictions in the laws, the issue about age of the child is quite clear. “The law states a particular age for a person to be tried as a criminal and a different one for the same person to work at

Most of these children under 15 support their family. They have no time to go to school. Zinzira, Dhaka. by: Azizur Rahim Peu, DrikNews.

a factory and earn money,” he explains. “According to the law, up to the age of 14 years, a person is a child. Up to the age of 18 years, the child is an adolescent. Once the child turns 18, he or she becomes an adult. There is no confusion here so far as the law is concerned. However, the law does state that employing a child below the age of 14 is illegal and punishable under the law. A child between the ages of 14-18 can be employed provided that he or she is not involved in any kind of hazardous activities, is not refrained from continuing his or her education and is given enough time for recreation and relaxation.”

According to Ahmed, to fill up the gaps and loopholes in the system, the government must build safety nets so that the families depending on working children are not affected. “The government must establish schools for orphans and children belonging to poor families in every upazilla, along with hostels. Along with the arrangements, vocational training schools should also be built with the schools and hostels. This way, children will be able to live and study at the same place and also develop their skills as well, for instance tailoring, electric, plumbing and other fields as well.”

Ahmed also adds that the government should probably introduce something called the Family Responsibility Law. “It sounds very ambitious,” he admits. “But because of the everyday arising problems like men leaving their wives and children to face the debtors all by themselves, this law should be introduced by the government. This way, legal actions can be taken against the men or the perpetrator. Moreover, when an adolescent is employed, he or she will be required to register his or her name, family details and other necessary details under this law.”

Ahmed further says that the government should also keep a check on family planning and invest more in the health sector for these children, especially in rural areas. “Health is probably one of the most deteriorating sectors in the country which is especially affecting the children belonging to poor families. And family planning should also be a major priority for the government so that families, belonging to all walks of life in society.”

Nazma Yesmin, the Programme Officer of Bangladesh, BILS, in fact stresses on the need for family planning, which is probably the root of all evils in this country, which also includes the rapid population growth. “Families do not pay any heed to family planning, especially those living in the rural areas,” she says. According to Nazma, the age old ideas, unfortunately, still reign amongst families, not only in the low-income families but also in middle-class and upper middle-class families in Bangladesh. “Many parents believe that if they have more sons than daughters, they would have a better future. In poorer families we still see parents having more and more children only so they could have more earners in the family. What they do not realise is that they are giving birth to more mouths to feed. When these children turn 6 or 7 years old, they are sent to homes to work as domestic workers and factories to work under dangerous conditions. This is an issue which should be tackled before anything else. This way at least 50% of our problems can be eliminated.”

Ahmed also says that people like us also have a very important role to play in eliminating child labour. “Every generation is responsible for the next one,” he says. According to Ahmed, since legal adoption is not possible as yet in Bangladesh, families can take care of orphans and poor children starting from their very own doorsteps. That is why, he says, that we must create our very own Social Security Net starting with a 'Sponsor a Child' programme. “Each family can sponsor one child. There are adolescents who work in many homes. We can educate them and also give them vocational training.” Ahmed says that more and more young people can work as apprentices in factories as long as they are not exploited. “There used to be an old tradition where young children used to live in the homes of rich people, help them in the household works, like looking after the family cow and also helping in the kitchen. In return, these children were given education and food. We can bring this tradition back into our homes, with slight modifications, through the 'Sponsor a Child' programme.”

Factory owners prefer using cheap and controllable child labour in their counterfeit dry cell battery factories in Sadarghat, an old part of Dhaka. by: Azizur Rahim Peu, DrikNews.

In spite of all the hypothetical solutions put forward, which Ahmed truly believes can be put to work in our society, what the poverty-stricken people want are real actions and a drive from the authorities which will not only give them and their children security, income, shelter and regular meals, but also education and respect as hard working citizens. Abolishing child labour might be another point which will make us look good on paper, however if the government is unable to provide an alternative plan along with implementing this policy, poverty will increase at a faster rate instead of being reduced.

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