Can India Save its Working Children?

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Shelly 01One of the most difficult challenges facing children in India is the controversial issue of work. Child labor continues to be abusive and exploitative of children, and millions are caught in its trap - by some estimates over one hundred million. Children are kidnapped, tricked and trafficked into all sorts of work, including the sex trade.

On the other hand, to simply outlaw and eradicate all children’s work across the board seems both unrealistic and not necessarily beneficial to every child in every circumstance. Some older children work in safe, decent jobs because the other option - not working at all - means an even worse fate, starvation. In a perfect world, no child would have to work. But there are gray areas in this issue.

I stumbled across a very interesting article published in Time Magazine in October 2007, about the problem of child labor in India. As the article depicts one type of situation:

Dinnertime finds the famous Haldiram’s restaurant in south Delhi noisy and crowded. The larger tables are taken up by affluent extended families, the very picture of upwardly mobile urban India — well-dressed grandparents, several stylish young couples, and a multitude of happy and excited children. On smaller tables nearby are the ayahs (child-minders), looking heartbreakingly out of place, not eating and waiting to be called on to deal with the kids when they get out of hand. More often than not, the ayahs are themselves children, barely in their pre-teens. Each makes less money each month than the family whose children she cares for will spend on dinner that night. She will never go to school, never acquire any skills that could get her any other form of employment when she’s older, and will spend her life eating leftovers and wearing hand-me-downs.

Employment of children in such occupations is not only heartbreaking; it is also illegal. The most optimistic prognoses of India’s economic growth story often rely on its huge “demographic dividend” — 35% of its 1.1 billion people are younger than 15. However, with millions of children not going to school and picking up no marketable skills, this huge reservoir of young people could well be a ticking time bomb of social unrest.

The article quotes Farida Lambay of Pratham, whom I also interviewed for The Weight of Silence. Lambay cites a UNICEF initiative to get the hotel owners’ association to agree to refrain from hiring children, and her own organization’s campaign to get 4,000 housing societies to certify that no children were working in homes, as examples of success of the ban. “Overall, 19,000 children were rescued during the last year in Mumbai,” she says, adding, “It is a great beginning.”

Convention 182 is a legally binding, international agreement from the International Labour Organization to prohibit the worst forms of child labour. In less than three years, 132 countries had ratified the convention, and today the tally is 150 countries, making it the fastest ratified convention in ILO’s 82 year history - clearly demonstrating that support for the movement against abusive child labour is growing rapidly throughout the world.

However, as of April 2007, 14 of the 177 ILO member countries have still NOT ratified this crucial convention. These countries are Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Guinea-Buissau, Haiti, India, Kiribati (Republic of), Sierra Leone, Soloman Islands, Somalia, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

For More Information:

Read the Time Magazine article

Visit Pratham’s website

Visit the Global March Against Child Labor

Sign a petition asking the world’s leaders to keep their promise of protecting children

Information about the author

altShelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Austin and Seattle. She just completed a book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, about the 25 million children in India who are growing up without homes or families of their own, often on the streets or victims of child labor or trafficking. You can visit her website at for more information.


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