by Matilda Branson
Working in gender issues, I sometimes push the children’s rights stuff to the side for UNICEF or Save the Children to deal with, or leave the child labour issues in the hands of the International Labor Organisation. I put it all into a mental box labelled “child rights stuff”, separate to all the gender and women’s rights things I work on day to day.
But ye gods, surely this is the Achilles’ heel of international development, the old approach of silo-ing everything into separate fields – women’s rights separate to children’s rights, water and sanitation separate to education, public health separate to economic empowerment. It’s crazy because everything overlaps, and a holistic approach has to be the name of the game, right? Of course child rights issues cross-cut gender and equality.
Sweat shops in India, child soldiers in Uganda, child pornography, the exploitation of children… In the world of international development, working side-by-side with child-focused organisations like World Vision and UNICEF and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and child-specific Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) like MDG 2 – “Achieving universal primary education” or MDG 4 “Reducing child mortality rates”– it sometimes seems that “children’s issues” are the easiest to tackle. There’s a reason sponsor-a-child campaigns are so successful – no one likes to let kids suffer and so many interventions for kids are needs-based.
Yet last month, I went on a monitoring visit to a brick kiln factory on the outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal where I work, with an organisation named Animal Nepal, to investigate the working conditions of the many donkeys, mules and small ponies which cart devastatingly heavy loads of unbaked bricks to and from the huge chimney-like brick kiln to be cooked.
Brick kiln factories are where the bricks that are building a rapidly urbanising Kathmandu are made. But the cruel animal labour aside, horrible enough within itself, these factories are also home to young seasonal labourers –as young as six-years-old. These workers are young kids from poor rural families desperate to earn money, children sent as bonded labourers, or children living in poverty from India who hear through a middleman that they can make a buck over the border in Kathmandu. These are the children upon whose backs the brick industry is built in Nepal.
Working 12-14 hours a day, six days a week in the dusty factories, these kids make an average of 1000 Nepalese rupees, or $11 a month They live in small shelters on-site built from bricks without mortar in freezing conditions throughout the Nepali winter, usually from November to May.
They live tough lives. Young boys try to act like young men to fit in with older workers. We saw a nine-year-old smoking on a cigarette and swearing, trying to be cool in front of his peers on a break. Many have lung and eye problems due to the incessant brick dust they work in all day. There is also an alarming trend of developmentally disabled children being employed.
And what is being done? Who is really thinking of the children? Animal Nepal does its best, using animal welfare visits to the factories as a pretext for investigating the child labour within them. There is one small school set up by an amazing Welshman at one factory. Yet no one else is touching the issue on a long-term basis; it is a “complex” social issue, many have told me.
The hundreds of brick kiln factories in the Kathmandu Valley are privately-owned, so relationships must be formed with separate owners each time when wanting to investigate factory conditions, and factories frequently change hands. The labour is seasonal and the children come and go, different children to different factories every year, so it would be difficult for any services to reach the same children year in year out. No one wants to provide any basic services like nutritional food, vaccinations or health check-ups, toilets or running water or education to children in these factories, as it is feared providing services will only encourage children to return if the factories are more “comfortable”.
These arguments are trotted out, one after the other, and what results is inaction on the issue, and another season passes, with another season of kids slaving away in the factories. I don’t give a damn if providing services might in some warped way “encourage” kids to factories. Look at the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The fact is, there are kids living and working in these factories, whose rights are being violated and denied at every turn, and while policy-makers and the international community worries about the “complexities” of the child labour issue, nothing is being done and it is children who are suffering for it.