Abolition of Child Labour through Compulsory Education

Child rights as 'universal values' for developed countries

In most developed nations education has over the years gained acceptance as an intrinsic value and as an end in itself that needs no further justification. In a sense therefore the question 'why education' has become redundant. Further in almost all developed countries there is a consensus on the issue of total abolition of child labour and recognition of the need for every child to receive formal school education as a matter of compulsion. There is, however, no unanimity on this issue especially in developing societies. A child being out of schools and in work and not accessing education is often seen as inevitability, a completely normal occurrence and on occasions even desirable.

The developed societies achieved universalisation of education some generations ago in response to strong voices in favour of education for all children as a means of countering their exploitation. National laws were changed to accommodate these aspirations while parents unused to sending their children to school struggled to grapple with the situation but ultimately decided in favour of sending their children to schools and keeping them there. In the process heated debates ensued. The core issues nevertheless were simple and straightforward. The arguments given in favour of continuance of child labour basically referred to the poverty of the parents and the family's dependence on children's work for survival. The voice against child labour on the other hand focussed on protection of children, giving them recognition as individuals in their own right, respecting them, and treating their childhood as precious. The resolution of the debates, which occurred over a period of time, was an organic process involving people from within these societies. The values that got crystallised were universal and absolute in nature with relevance across time and local specific conditions. They clearly articulated the need to abolish child labour and forcefully argued for laws on compulsory education.

Once compulsory education laws were put in place the context of the debates changed considerably, from one that questioned the need to enact the laws to one seeking the best manner for enforcing it. The child came to be regarded as an individual whose default occupation was to be a student rather than a worker. The society interacted with children through processes rooted in the education system than in the labour market and above all the family was made to view the child not as a wage earner but as someone who needed to be nurtured and provided for. This transition did not occur in isolation either. Changes in work patterns, technologies and the manner in which production processes were organised all underwent a change simultaneously along with the education system itself in order to accommodate the withdrawal of the child from the labour market. By the end, the issues which were at the core of the initial arguments such as the capacity of families to survive in the absence of the income from their children's labour and whether education itself was relevant to the needs of the child receded into the background to be replaced by issues relating to protection of child rights.

Child labour as 'universal values' for developing countries

Despite the volume of debate that has been generated in the past, several countries in the contemporary era continue to grapple with the problem of child labour and illiteracy. Although the condition of children remains much the same as those obtaining in the developed societies earlier, the debates on the issue continue to follow the tortuous route that they did in the past and if anything are even more complicated. The issue of protection of child rights is mediated by arguments, which make it impossible to abolish child labour or even moot the issue of compulsory education. There has been little attempt to draw lessons from countries that have, in similar circumstances, abolished child labour and achieved universalisation of education. Instead there is amnesia in this regard and a denial of the universality of the value of protection of child rights through abolition of all forms of child labour and compulsory education. Simultaneously a completely different set of standards are being laid out in relation to the issue of child labour, which are apparently in the interest of the poor and their children, but which in fact result only in providing justifications for the perpetuation of child labour and denial of schooling for them. Far from generating a sense of urgency for withdrawing all children from work and sending them to schools arguments have been devised which support the notion of children working on the ground that it is actually beneficial for them.

Eliminating child labour is possible: irrelevance of the poverty and quality of education debate

In the context of child labour this is not to deny in anyway the need to address the issues of quality of teaching in schools or of situations arising out of poverty. However in the absence of an uncompromising stand on the abolition of child labour, the focus is on can this be done rather than how this should be done. It is this distinction that needs to be clearly drawn. As long as the question of can this be done is the only one that is being addressed no real solution will emerge. The entire effort tends to get focused on understanding why we are where we are, implying an analysis of parents who send their children to work, rather than how we get to where we need to be, which involves an understanding of how parents have learnt to cope with their limitations and are now sending their children to school.

For a family of illiterates the very task of sending a child to school represents a major transformation. This has little to do with what the child learns in school or the quality of teaching. It represents an expression of desire on the part of the parents to transcend the limitations imposed on them by the society in the past and their own present circumstances and provide for a better future for their child. As far as the children are concerned the very fact that they are kept away from a work situation itself creates a situation where they acquire new skills and capabilities. Once again this acquisition, though it occurs in school, is not necessarily acquired through the teacher or the curriculum or even the education system as a whole. It could be through interaction with peer groups, through self-learning and through processes and for ends which have nothing whatsoever to do with what the stated objectives of the education system. The latter aspect is particularly significant because traditionally, in the Indian context, the rules governing teaching as well as the functioning of schools are completely insensitive to the requirements of first generation students. Many of the rules framed, ostensibly to maintain the quality of teaching in schools, are quite detrimental to the process of enrolling and retaining working children or children from families with no tradition of sending children to school. Even a simple rule like the last date of admission to school during an academic year, which is prescribed to ensure that the teaching calendar is not disturbed on account of new admissions, and is essentially viewed as a rule that helps maintain quality of teaching is a major disaster as far as enrolment is concerned. This rule makes no distinction between a child from a family of multiple generation literates and one from an illiterate family with no history of interaction with school and who have to overcome a large number of barriers to event think of sending their child to school. Once the prescribed last date of admission is over both are told to wait till the next academic year before seeking admission again.

Similarly the entire aspect of pedagogy itself is tuned to deliver quality education to those who are familiar with and capable of meeting the demands of the school system. Most traditional pedagogic tools, simply assume that they are addressing children who will come to school regularly and who receive strong academic support at home. In fact even the pre-service training that teachers receive does not distinguish between those who would be teaching in schools where the clientele is largely first generation students in typically state run schools and those who would be teaching in schools addressing children from families with strong educational background. As a result quality as traditionally envisaged in the context of a good school takes on an entirely different meaning in comparison to quality as required to retain first generation students in schools. A school providing relevant and quality education to the latter category would mean an institution that is conscious of the forces operating on these children outside that classroom and makes the necessary adjustments inside both in terms of pedagogy and the rules that govern the functioning of the school. The emphasis needs to be not on developing a system that identifies and supports a bright student but one, which primarily stresses the need to nurture the desire of the parents as well as the child to break the tradition of sending children to work instead of to schools. In this situation even monitoring quality of the schools through learning outcomes of the child has to be replaced by monitoring the capacity of the school to keep the child away from work. But this can happen only when children's rights are viewed as being paramount in every context. Once children's rights are seen as inviolable, institutions such as the school begin to be judged by their ability to protect these rights for all children rather than by their ability to provide high quality education irrespective of the number of children.

In the ultimate analysis irrespective of the policies adopted by the State the poor have always found their own ways of overcoming the limitations facing them and their own reasons for doing so. The challenge of securing a better future for their children is in no way different from their overall struggle to access resources and institutions in general. The real issue is whether the policies and programs aimed ostensibly for their benefit recognise this and support them in their endeavour.

Schools as cultural capital, site for contestation of power and as public space

Stated differently schools become institutions that break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and deprivation. Children no longer grow up to become what their parents did as marginalized and vulnerable workers. In fact even during the process of children gaining access to schools, the families of the poor witness a change in their lifestyle and mode of thinking and these families cease to reproduce the same values and culture, which keep them marginalized. They begin to assert and question with greater confidence and take informed decisions. Schools thus become the first step towards equity and access to cultural capital. By demanding sensitivity on the part of the education system to the predicament of the poor and the children, the parents question the intentions of the programmes for 'education for all' and 'universalisation of education' that have never envisaged the actual accomplishment of this task. In doing so begins the process of democratisation of schools bringing o the fore the problems poor confront in keeping their children in schools. Schools, thus become the site for contestation of power. Being in school liberates children from their lives of tension and tribulations, their exploitative conditions of living, the violence and suffering which they endure in the family and at work place, if the child is a girl, then their gender discrimination and the issue of early child marriages. Once they are in schools they are no longer hidden but are in public space under public scrutiny. They are in the reckoning and thus can gain access to all the rights they are entitled to as children. In fact the right place for children to be in is the school.

What must be done?

Any planning for universalisation of education must recognise that there is an explosive demand for education at all levels. Planning must begin on recognizing this demand of the poor for schools. Just because the poor have not articulated their demand or are unable to give logical explanation for why they seek to send their children to school does not mean that they do not want to send their children to school. More often than not even those parents who have indeed sent their children to schools find it difficult to convince intellectuals on why they did so. Their inability to do so may be construed as if it was wrong for them to insist on educating their children.

All planning for universalisation must start with a conviction that: all children in the 5-14 age group must be in school and that no child must work; This is possible and must be done at any cost. Children cannot be used as providers of food security. Their work must be justified using the poverty argument. Child labour is not inevitable. It is not a karma that children must endure.

This conviction must be pervasive within the education bureaucracy/other institutions and the society as well. Further it is essential to develop a supportive administrative structure/ culture to achieve this goal. This conviction must also become socially accepted And therefore a need for well orchestrated programme of social mobilisation involving all stake holders in setting up a norm in support of compulsory education. Which should at the same time exercise continuous pressure on State and its institutions to help in preparing schools for all children.

However planning for UEE has always been half-hearted. There has been a lack of conviction that children can be withdrawn from work. Formal schools have constantly been undermined. Since it was predetermined that not all children can attend schools, this cynicism informed all policies and programs from top to bottom. This half-hearted attitude is not confined to national governments alone. While UNICEF endorses that all children have a right to education in its strategy to ensure that children have access to schools the emphasis is on piecemeal coverage - primary education first then secondary or six year olds first then the cohort of the next age group and so on .ILO too targets only some children especially those in 'worst forms of child labour' first. The strategies of both UNICEF and ILO act against any possibility of working towards universalisation of education resulting in a compromise on guaranteeing every child his/her right to education. The project for abolition of child labour is not separate from the project for universalisation of elementary education. They are two sides of the same coin. Although the UNICEF in its Convention on the Rights of the Child perceives the importance of right to education in relieving children from work in working out the strategies for the same it seeks to a progressive realisation over a period of time. For example 'Article 28 of the Convention requires state parties to merely recognise the right to education, and progressively realise that right.'

Moving out of the half-hearted approach and towards building a social norm

Such a cynicism has resulted in half-hearted programmes such as alternate schools, non-formal education centres, and schools with flexibility in timings to substitute for full time formal schools. Formal full-time day schools were not seen as the only institutions where every child must be in. The entire universe of children in the 5-14 age group has never considered while planning for UEE. Reaching the children targeted can be accomplished only when the universe of children and their predicament is addressed. It is in creating an atmosphere emphasising the rights of every child that the 'difficult' ones gain confidence to abandon work. But the stand of policy makers precludes any possibility of working towards universalisation resulting in a compromise on guaranteeing every child his/her right to education. It also precludes any possibility of achieving universalisation of elementary education.

Any policy must seek to work out a plan for every child who is out of school to come to school and preparing them for the school system using motivation centres, residential bridge course programs and other methods of preparing the older children to schools.

It must also recognise that each child would require a specific plan based on the child's age, gender, what the child is doing and so on. To do so it must involve the local community and youth as volunteers who participate in the planning, implementation and monitoring of the programme. Simultaneously local groups, institutions, committees in favour of child rights must be constituted giving a clear message that a child is never too old to enrol himself/herself in the formal school. While the demand for schools is thus generated it pressures the government for the necessary supplies.

Anticipating the demand the government must be ready to gear up its supplies. There must also be a simplification of procedures for facilitating admission in formal schools at multiple levels, redesigning of curriculum to allow older children learn faster through bridge course and involvement of the community in school management and governance. There must be a recognition that schools are to become poor child friendly and that they ought to be sensitive to the predicament of the parents and their inability to cope with formal schools as a matter of habit.

For the current model to be fully successful it requires the government to gear itself for the functions of providing children access to schools and retention simultaneously and to ensure that enrolment and retention through community involvement be an integral part of the UEE plan. It must also provide ethos [legal and normative framework] that binds the system. Further it must bring changes in the education management system, which is at present hierarchical and bureaucratic, functioning by means of a vertical chain of command from top to bottom and have a long -term (inter-generational) perspective for education planning.

In the long run the critical issue in regard to the rights of children and in particular the right not to be engaged in work, is whether they are absolute or negotiable.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - March 12, 2002