16 October 2011

Opinion: Of child labour and child rights

Do we really know what percentage of the total population forms the child labour force? The authority concerned may or may not know the exact number, but in reality, it would be quite astonishing, given that poverty is all pervasive and parents are illiterate. Last but not least, society has apathy towards the issue.

Child labour is not a result of a single factor, yet poverty is the most important factor behind child labour in our country, where more than 40 per cent of the total population lives below the poverty line. Many of the children from poor families work only to ensure two meals a day.

According to the National Child Labour Survey 2008, carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, there were some 7.2 million child labourers in the country while a significant number of them were engaged in the worst form of occupations. In Bangladesh, child labour is found in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic service, hotels and restaurants, and even in drug trafficking and prostitution.

Millions of children begin working for a living at an age when they should be attending school. Though, the number of children attending school is increasing, eventually, the effect of increasing enrolment in primary school is counter-balanced by the fact that millions of children are engaged not only in work but also in hazardous work.

Just consider the job at a ship-breaking yard. The Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BASF) has identified 430 risky jobs. Among these, 67 occupations are classified as highly risky and 11 as dangerous.

Shipbreaking falls in the latter category. A significant per cent of the workers are children who mainly come from the northern regions of Bangladesh. It was noticed that shipbreaking contractors prefer children to adults as recruits, because children could be paid less in wages. The children work mainly as gas cutters' assistants and move iron sheets from one place to another. They either work in the yard from sunrise to sunset or do the night shift.

On the other hand, they are not aware of hazards to which they are exposed. They have no protective gears and many of them work barefoot. There is hardly any testing system for the use of machinery.

When there is an injury some immediate treatment are given but there is no long-term treatment for those who suffer permanent injuries. There are no educational or recreational facilities for them. The situation is more or less the same for the traditional brick kilns where children are found in plenty. All these are happening only due to the fact that most poor families, in Bangladesh, are more or less dependent on their children's income for survival.

Again, an overwhelming number of street children are found in the city of Dhaka. The ruthless realities of life make these children frustrated and more often than not, they are prepared to do anything to earn some money. This is why they involve themselves in many types of illegal activities including drug peddling and eventual addiction.

Children who are homeless or work on the streets tend to have needs different from other children living with their parents. Whether or not they have contact with their families, they are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse, exploitation, poor living conditions and hunger. They tend to live transitory lifestyles, unsupervised by parents, with little or no access to health, education and recreation.

However, the Child Rights Week 2011 was inaugurated in the country a few days back. And the government is very much keen to create a children-friendly environment in the country, ensuring safety of the children from all sorts of exploitations and deprivations. The government has formulated National Child Policy 2011 as well but still the number of child labourers and street children is increasing.

In the light of the above, it is quite clear that working children are an economic necessity for their family. Hence, more emphasis should be given on ensuring children's access to education, food, shelter and medicare so that they can enjoy their rights which they deserve. Moreover, poverty alleviation is a must as poverty is the main reason behind the increasing number of child labour.

Source: The Financial Express. Shafiqul Alam (shafiqul0032@yahoo.com). 15 October 2011

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