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Faint Hope For Nepal’s Child Slaves
N abin Tanang says he is 12 but looks younger. He doesn’t know if his parents are alive, but since he gets a 2-hour break from his 12-14 hour workday to attend school he can consider himself among the luckiest child slaves in Nepal.
Nabin is a domestic child laborer. They generally come to Kathmandu from rural areas, after a relative or broker has arranged a home for them. In exchange for their long days of dishwashing, water fetching, and kitchen work, their hosts give them food and shelter and pay about five or six dollars per month to their parents. Nabin’s parents are unknown, so his employers pay nothing. Credible estimates say there are between 20,000 and 30,000 domestic child laborers in Kathmandu, a city of just over one million.
The children generally work every day, don’t attend school, and see their parents once a year or less until around age 14 when they are sent home or released into Kathmandu without money, skills, or education. According to activists working with them, on release, the boys are easily exploitable by people offering apprenticeships and the girls often fall prey to traffickers selling them into the sex trade.
Many activists say the prevalence of child labor in Nepal is as much due to the society’s feudal nature and caste system as it is to poverty. Changing a social mentality, which does not object to children working for little or no pay, they say, will be more difficult than their current projects of providing the children with a basic education, an understanding of their rights, and, legal inter vention.
In South Asia child labor is relatively common, but in Nepal—a small, poor, and young country—about 10 percent of the population are working children. “The eradication of child labor is not possible,” says Bijaya Sainju, head of Concern, an advocacy group. “If you suggested it, the community would say you were crazy.” Instead he says they champion better working conditions and interventions in situations where there is severe abuse or harassment and thus stronger community support.
Nabin Tanang is a student at a free program run by Children- Women in Social Service & Human Rights (CWISH.) With his guardians’ permission, he can attend school two hours a day for nine months in a program teaching reading, writing, and English.
The program is designed to feed them into the regular school system, though this requires fees and permission from their “guardians.” Milan Dharal, who works at the organization, says parents often use school fees (or even CWISH’s program) as an excuse not to pay the children’s families—rural, often illiterate peasants—to whom they are essentially unaccountable.
Despite the difficulties of their lives, the children and their “owners” both say they are better off in Kathmandu than in the rural villages. In Kathmandu, both sides say, there is plumbing, television, and at least the promise of opportunity, though employers often falsely lead their charges to believe that they are on the path to a comfortable life with a job as a bureaucrat or skilled laborer. One of Tanang’s classmate’s Sangeeta Chowdury, 12, has worked in Kathmandu for a year. She says she often fights with her owner’s son who she says never works. Despite the long days and no pay she studies hard; she wants to be a doctor, she says quietly, perhaps aware of the odds against her.
When asked about Sangeeta’s dream, her guardian Maiya Poudyal chuckled. “I’m not convinced,” she said. “But I’ll support her learning to read.” A group of such guardians laughed and nodded their agreement. These were “good employers,” a member of CWISH said. They had not only sent their children to the school program, but had agreed to meet with a reporter to discuss the situation. All were happy with their laborers’ work, though Nabin and others said they had been beaten at home and received treatment inferior to their guardians’ natural children.
In 2002, after a six-year legal battle, the organization Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) won a case for a domestic worker who had been kept in chains at his owner’s house. Since then, there have been a trickle of legal victories and out-of-court settlements in similarly abusive situations. But Sumnima Tuladhar, the group’s program coordinator, said it was barely progress.
Under the current system, she said, the children’s “owners have the right to abuse and exploit them.” Indeed the major danger of child domestic work is that, except for the few hundred at school, the children are invisible to the outside world and therefore subject to physical, mental, and sexual abuse. “A lot goes on between the four walls,” Tuladhar added.
invisibility led the International Labor Organization to call domestic
work one of the seven worst forms of child labor in Nepal, along
with more overtly hazardous jobs in restaurants and stone quarries.
There are few legal protections. While Nepal’s Child Act proscribes work for children under 14, it does not mention domestic child labor. Activists are calling for a more specific and enforceable law, but until then, in legal battles, CWIN cites the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Nepal is a party. The convention guarantees a child’s (those under 18) right to education, play, and protection from “economic exploitation and 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.”
Echoing the consensus among child advocates, Sumnima Tuladhar does not expect major changes soon. The Nepalese government has never been known for efficiency, she says, and the current Maoist insurrection absorbs much of their resources, time, and excuses.
Since most people with child laborers belong to the elite Brahmin caste, the National Human Rights Commission has suggested a statute that would ban government workers from having child laborers, a gesture designed to set an example. In December, Bimal Koirala, Nepal’s chief cabinet secretary, said the statute was at the ministry level and would be signed “soon.” It had not been at the time of this writing in late January.
Sushil Pyakurel, a member of the commission, was less optimistic. He said government employees were satisfied with their child workers and disinclined to give them up. The government, he says, has to take more initiative. Disagreeing with other activists who say child labor was an intrinsic part of Nepalese society, he says child labor isn’t Nepal’s culture, but added, “We’re making it the culture now.”
Alex Halperin is a freelance reporter based in New Delhi.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.