I had a great site visit yesterday to Concern for Working Children http://www.workingchild.org/ This organization was such an amazing place to visit–a true inspiration for anyone interested in ways in which the voices of youth can change the world.
The organization got started by labor activists in the 1970s when they noticed that children were coming to the labor organizing meetings and sitting in the front row, but no one was working with them. They formed children’s labor unions, separate from adults because they have different needs. unions of working children used to be slums as a focus by now migrant children are a greater focus worked on flex schooling for these kids in the early years and improving life quality.
Things took a turn for the worse for working kids in India when the country passed its 1986 child labor policy which banned child labor. By banning child labor, it did not eliminate child labor, but instead criminalized it. “Rid and Rescue” operations would raid hotels and other locations to round up and “save” the child workers. As such, the kids moved to invisible work sites in much more dangerous settings, such as firecracker factories. No one asked why the children were working and not in school–often because they were kicked out of school or beaten in school such that they were afraid to return. Other kids WERE in school, but also working.
It goes back to a central point in my research–ask the kids what they need and you’ll get some powerful results. Assume you know what’s best for kids and you often will make it worse. It also caused me to think of all of the college protests that I see back in the U.S. pressuring Nike and similar organizations to close sweatshops abroad and how that might be misguided. While we want better working conditions for kids, it needs to be done in a way that ensures that the policies will improve the lives of kids. Top down policies like universal bans often don’t achieve what we think they might.
This organization set to empower working kids by giving them information and helping them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. It provides capacity building and information and the children then make choices to work, to go to school, or most often, they are doing both–going to school and going to work, as is the case in many families in the United States. The problem has also shifted in the past 20 years to mainly kids 14 years and older–younger kids are almost always in school now. The population is also shifting from slums, where situations are improving in most areas, to migrant children who are coming down from northern Karnataka where the agricultural businesses aren’t thriving. They are living in tents in the cities and working on construction sites, building roads, drains, buildings. The kids are picking rags and recycling garbage. They are hiding and lying about their age. And their families will pick up and move again to the next job shortly. This population is a challenging one without a geographic home and the main focus of CRC work.
The CRC also emphasizes that work policies must be local and contextually based. They have also been working with children to define what types of work settings are appropriate for children, which are very locally specific. For example cow herding may be appropriate in one locale because it happens right on the same road as where a child lives, but not appropriate in another locale if the cows need to be walked several miles away.
The CRC organizes opportunities for children to be heard by local village councils and was even successful in making that a state law for all 5600 local governments. They have developed manuals for local leaders and other NGOs to work with children to present their needs to the local governments. Often issues of transportation are of great concern to children–especially getting to school and work during the monsoon seasons. Girls ride buses where they are sexually harrassed. Boats won’t cross the river unless a certain number of children have arrived and thus kids are late for school. Vehicles run children off the road and sometimes injure them.
One of the most powerful stories was a village where the kids wanted the liquor store closed because of what it was doing to their fathers and uncles. They first asked the local officials to close it and they refused. They then provided case studies of how their family members act from drinking and again the officials refused. The children then hid outside the liquor store and counted the number of purchases for a month. They showed that the village was spending 10 lacks rupees (that’s about 10,000) on liquor. The entire village received only 5 lacks in government funding in a year, so this was a huge amount of resources going to alcohol. Those numbers forced the closure of the liquor store!
I asked my colleague what she would do if she could wave a magic wand and improve India. She said first, we need to politicize the citizenry to demand change and end corruption. Second, if the government increased its GDP spending on education (and on health) from 2% to 5% respectively. That increase in funding would make it possible to achieve a standard of common schooling that would be of a high enough quality to reduce the demand for private schooling and to achieve a range of classes and castes to attend the same schools.
I look forward to working further with the CRW!