Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Listening to working children is a legal obligation – not a choice

If the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour truly seeks to help working children then policymakers will listen to them before trying to undermine their livelihoods.

Frances Sheahan Pragya Lamsal
29 January 2021, 10.56am
Kathmandu, Nepal
Julie Laurent/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Although a challenging task, listening to children is a legal obligation. The principle of children’s right to participate is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the start of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the onus is on all of the convention’s signatories to develop mechanisms for children to express their views and to influence decision-making that affects them and to achieve change.

The right to be heard is one of the four general principles of the convention – the others are the right to non-discrimination, the right to life and development, and the primary consideration of the child’s best interests. All children have this right, without discrimination, and it cuts across all different spheres of children’s lives – home, work, community, school, and local and national government as well as from local to global levels. Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals further emphasises the role of inclusion, participation, rights and security in sustainable development, with target 16.7 providing for “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.

Meaningful participation by children requires space, opportunities, audience and influence. It also demands that children are safe, participate willingly and voluntarily, and are well informed throughout inclusive participatory processes. All too often efforts to include children in discussions about issues that affect them are tokenistic. They rarely manage to include the most vulnerable children, such as those who are involved in the ‘worst forms of child labour’, which include trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, and children in armed conflict. These children are often hard to reach and their voices are rarely heard in policymaking. But going the extra mile is vital because listening to these children talking about their experiences of work and developing their own solutions can have an enormous impact on them as well as on the design and implementation of effective law and policy.

Shristi of Nepal

Shristi was born in a small village in the centre of Nepal. After her mother died, she stopped going to school and was expected to take on more domestic chores. At age 15, Shristi migrated to Kathmandu to stay with her sister in search of work and a new life. Shristi had a number of poorly paid jobs, including in a glass bottle washing factory and in a garment factory where conditions were tough. Finally, her brother-in-law told her about an opportunity as a waitress at a dohori restaurant – a place where traditional song and dance are performed while customers eat and drink. Shristi shared her experiences with the CLARISSA programme in Nepal, which aims to bring an action research approach to supporting working children.

“The dohori was a completely new environment for me. Customers would want to do more than that just chat. They would ask for my phone number, sexually abuse and try to molest us. But it was not just the customers who were a threat. I found out our co-worker used to get a commission if she arranged for us to have sex with them.”

The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the adult entertainment sector in Nepal is not uncommon and particularly affects girls. It mostly takes place in informal and unregulated venues, like dohori restaurants, massage parlours and dance bars. Children are attracted to the sector by the promise of better jobs and opportunities, and are often recruited by relatives, neighbours or friends.

Storytelling as a way of understanding the realities of children’s work

Nepal has an extensive albeit incomplete legislative framework that theoretically protects children from the so-called ‘worst forms of child labour’. It has also established institutional mechanisms for enforcing regulations and laws. Yet Shristi’s story and those of other children highlight the divide between an unregulated informal sector in which adult entertainment can thrive and the formal policies and laws that are supposed to protect children.

Civil society, employers and government officials often have overly simplistic understandings of why children end up in exploitative forms of work. The Nepalese police often raid venues to ‘rescue’ girls, yet they do so without any real understanding of what put them there in the first place. This reflects a lack of understanding within society as a whole. Stories can counteract that tendency. Nuanced accounts challenge clichés and show how poverty, peer pressure, family breakdown and betrayal can all contribute to the exploitation of children.

The storytelling process in the CLARISSA programme also provides children with the opportunity to reflect on their situation. They are encouraged to develop new and creative ideas and practices for bringing about change – change that is directly relevant for their own lives – and to bring these ideas to the attention of policymakers.

The right to participation is fundamental to understanding the complexity and diversity of the lives of working children, and to breaking down stereotypes.

Yet providing children with the opportunities to bring about positive change in their lives is not a straightforward task. It takes time to build trust and rapport to allow for their stories to be told. This is especially the case for children who may feel ashamed of working in sectors, such as adult entertainment, that are stigmatised.

Learning from children such as Shristi can help governments to design laws, policies and programmes that are relevant, effective and accountable – not least to children themselves. The participatory inquiry process can make them feel that there is someone who listens to their stories with empathy in a trusted environment and without fear of being exposed to the society that stigmatises their job. Their participation can also build working children’s self-confidence and encourage them to raise their voices and claim their rights. This is always important, but never more so than now as children continue to bear the brunt of the devastating economic consequences of COVID-19.

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