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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 173
January 9, 2003

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Campaigns to make homes child labour free

Shoishab- A humane approach towards child domestic workers

Shaila Shahid

Child domestic workers- the world's invisible workers, stay alone in individual households, hidden from public scrutiny, their lives controlled by their employers. Trapped between four walls, millions of children are toiling night and day as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier families. Scrubbing, sweeping, serving and suffering, these children have long forgotten the joy that childhood usually meant to be.

A widespread practice throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the use of children as domestic servants has been condemned as one of the worst forms of child labour. The ILO has described domestic work as among the lowest status, least regulated, and poorest paid of all occupations--that performed by children.

In Bangladesh, complex socio-economic conditions also force many children into the informal labour market. Rapid urbanization in the extremely poor agro-based country has continued to increase the number of homeless and slum-based children in the cities without an adequate family and financial support system. These children are easy victims of highly exploitative forms of child labour. Child domestic workers generally have never attended school or fail to complete their schooling. Their social isolation also excludes them from community-based health services and recreational opportunities.

In Bangladesh, historically children have formed part of production process for generations that means working childhoods are often accepted as a normal part of life. Because of the extreme economic poverty and its consequences, the poverty stricken families in the rural setup forced their children to release from school and to engage them in work. The rapid growth of child labour in the country in one hand created opening for the poverty stricken children to survive somehow. But on the other hand it created a far-reaching affect both on the economy as well as on the education. Side by side the abuse and exploitation on the children gradually increased at an alarming stage.

In such a backdrop, Since 1991 Shoishab- a rights based organisation has been working with urban disadvantaged homeless children. It pioneered the activities with street children in Dhaka and expanded into areas of child domestic workers. The organisation is striving to support and stand for the children living in extreme vulnerability, helps them to change their life style through service delivery, advocacy, skill training and education. The main purpose of the child domestic workers programme is to empower and rehabilitate the domestic child labours and raise their voice against all form of abuse. By non-formal education they are trying to re-socialise them with minimum disturbance of their existing living practices or without removing them from their own environment. Education opens up the opportunities for them to explore options that have been hitherto unavailable to them. It gives them access to alternatives or choices, delaminating the boundaries within which they are trapped.

According to a survey there are approximately 6 lakh children engaged in domestic work in Dhaka city. Shoishab is continuing the program in 11 thanas of Dhaka. A total of 2540 children are regularly attending in 102 learning centers.

Under the Advocacy and Social mobilization program Shoishab is trying to raise awareness among the employers on the issues of abuse, torture on the child domestics and aware them about the process of eliminate violence. An essential concomitant of this approach is to mould the attitude of the employers who must agree to accept the improvement in the conditions of the child workers and to give them their basic rights. By this process employers are motivated to provide opportunities to the child workers to enjoy a better deal. These children suffer from many restrictions on their activities, movement and behavior. They are confined to drudgery, are victims of denial of basic human rights and basic rights of the children such as lack of access to education and are often subjected to cruelty and violence. The remarkable change of attitude is certainly a huge step forward in making employers sensitive to the needs of their domestic workers. It also shows that age old perceptions can be changed and that making employers more humane, just and caring is not such an impossible work.

Another innovative effort is to build up the Halfway House that has been designed with a view to provide support to the children in need. In this program temporary residential facilities for the children along with the medical support are ensured. The overall aim is to dramatically increase awareness about the extent and seriousness of the problem. By this movement it will be pushing for legal measures, rehabilitation programs, and direct interventions to protect child domestic workers.

Domestic child labour is one of the most elusive forms of child labour to tackle. There are different international instruments that prohibit child labour. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all countries except Somalia and the United States, guarantees children the right "to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."

The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1999, and ratified by 150 countries worldwide, develops the prohibition on harmful or hazardous work more fully. Under the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, some forms of child labor are flatly prohibited, such as slavery or practices similar to slavery. Other types of work are prohibited if they constitute "work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children."

Also the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children's right to education, stating that primary education must be "compulsory and available free to all." Secondary education, including vocational education, must be "available and accessible to every child," with the progressive introduction of free secondary education. With regard to the interplay between child labor and education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly guarantees children the right "to be protected from performing any work that is likely . . . to interfere with the child's education . . . ."

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides for the elimination of discrimination against girls in education, including access to schooling, reduction of female student drop-out rates, and programs for girls who have left school prematurely. Government laws often exclude domestic workers from basic labor rights, labor ministries rarely monitor or investigate conditions of work in private households, and few programs addressing child labor include child domestics. Shoishob submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Women's and Children's affairs on September 30, 2002 that specifies the rights of the domestic workers that need to be addressed. But till date we are lacking of strict law on domestic violence and any law that ensures the rights of the domestic workers as well.

An absence of legal accountability contributes largely to these children's extreme vulnerability to all the negative elements of society. These children are sometimes victims of child trafficking, prostitution, sexual abuse and economic exploitation. Situation also forces them to get involved in anti-social activities such as gambling, drug trafficking and selling etc. Therefore these children should be addressed and should be protected from all forms of abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

Efforts to address child labour must take into account child domestic workers and ensure that their rights to education, healthy development and a protected childhood are safeguarded. For children to be guaranteed a protective environment, governments must be committed to their protection by enacting and enforcing laws that punish those who exploit children and communities must be aware of the risks children face. Children are the soul and spirit of every nation, but behind closed doors their dreams are facing a silent death if we don't act now. No more Cinderella story we want to hear that remains as a tragic episode of a child's life.

The author is Law desk Assistant of the Daily Star


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