As the global community gears up to commemorate this day as World Day Against Child Labour, my memories go back 19 years to those electrifying few months in 1998. That was when our movement for child rights won not just a tangible victory, but also a moral crusade. That was when likeminded people across the world forged a truly global partnership to organise the Global March Against Child Labour.
When it culminated in Geneva, even we were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the almost 2,000 delegates, including labour ministers from 150 countries, who had gathered there for the annual meeting of the International Labour Organization. Not only did 600 odd children and activists who had marched across the world get a standing ovation, but ILO actually agreed to pass an international legislation on the worst forms of child labour.
Popularly known as ILO Convention 182 that effectively prohibited child labour, abuse and exploitation, it was unanimously adopted in 1999. At one stroke, the global community made a sincere and honest attempt to stop an abomination that haunted and still troubles the conscience of the world: the pernicious and unacceptable violation of child rights.
By then, we had spent 18 struggling but satisfying years fighting against child labour through our organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which was launched in 1980. The quick ILO decision to declare exploitative child labour as illegal made our struggle worth it.
Subsequently, the decision in 2002 to mark June 12 every year as World Day Against Child Labour ensures that the global community remains engaged and focussed on abolishing child labour.
Indeed the global community needs to retain unwavering focus. By 1990, the United Nations had announced that all children would get an education by the year 2000. But nothing of that sort was happening at the ground level. By 1996, it was estimated that about 250 million children were being exploited through child labour, millions of them as virtual slaves or bonded labour.
Freedom, education and basic rights were a distant dream for these 250 million children. However, much to our satisfaction, the situation started improving at the ground level. There was a significant drop in the prevalence of child labour for a decade or so. But much to our dismay, that is no longer true.
The last four years have actually seen a stagnation, if not an increase in the prevalence of child labour. This time last year, the UN officially reported that 168 million children across the world were still being ruthlessly exploited despite stringent laws against child labour.
To this dangerous ground level situation has been added the alarming increase in recent years of child refugees and trafficking. Children constitute one third of the total population of the world but account for more than 50% of refugees. In the last decade, close to 10 million children have been killed in conflict and more than six million have become physically disabled.
It is estimated that 28 million children have become refugees without any hope for a future. Syria and Afghanistan alone accounted for more than 50% of child casualties and refugees in 2015. While accurate and reliable numbers are not available, there is a consensus that the refugee crisis has led to a big jump in child trafficking.
Clearly, the global community needs to engage and focus all over again with a sense of urgency on the menace of child labour and trafficking. The menace must be tackled in a multi-dimensional manner.
We need to partner more effectively with spiritual leaders to raise awareness. No religion sanctions the exploitation of children; rather, all of them consider protection of children as a sacred duty. Apart from religion, we need to address this issue at a cultural level too. In virtually every society ranging from the so-called primitive to the most advanced, children are treasured and celebrated. We need to channelise these cultural legacies into a sustained movement, both at the local community level as well as global level.
Religion and culture give us the moral foundation to build a better world for our children. Economics will provide the means and resources to do the same. It has been established that acute lack of livelihood opportunities often leads to child labour. Targeted welfare schemes like MGNREGA and midday meal scheme have not only led to a dramatic rise in enrolment of children in schools, but also a drop in child labour.
But this economic struggle is going to be long and arduous. Even today, it has been estimated that more than 600 million children suffer from extreme poverty. Our moral challenge is to ensure that the next generation doesn’t suffer the same fate.
I remain optimistic. March 1998 saw tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in cities like Dhaka, Oslo, Sao Paulo, Paris, Bangkok, Capetown and Kabul among others actively participate and demand abolition of child labour. One of the most evocative slogans then was: From Exploitation to Education. The time has come to launch yet another major global effort.
What moral argument against abolition of child labour can the world have when 210 million adults are jobless or unemployed who are mostly the parents of 168 million child labourers? It is also a proven fact that education is the most effective enabler, equaliser and empowering force that we know of, and child labour is the biggest impediment to education.