Simplification of issues rarely helps when trying to understand complex problems. A number of recent news items in the UK have focused upon the challenges of eradicating child labour, including the negative impact that this has upon education in India. The BBC this morning ran a news item on the radio about child cotton pickers in Andhra Pradesh, and stated that 400,000 children under the age of 18 work on cotton farms across India. Other news reports describe children being taken into domestic service, working in factories, restaurants and even in the mines of Kanataka. According to a recent report by the International Labour Rights Forum based in the USA more than half of these children are under the age of fourteen.
Until quite recently (2012) the India Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1987, allowed for children under the age of 14 to be employed in “non-hazardous” industries. This was, of course contrary to the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) (RTE), which requires all children between the ages of 6 and 14 to attend school. In August 2012, India’s Union Cabinet implemented legislation banning labour for all children under the age of 14. Yet this remains an issue and many children continue to miss out on education and thereby limit their opportunities for better employment and ultimately a more secure life style.
The situation is grim, and for those of us working in the area of inclusive education it is a source of exasperation. Fundamentally we believe that all children should attend school and receive an education alongside their peers. Quite rightly campaign and human rights groups such as UNICEF have demanded changes and are putting pressure upon national governments in countries where child labour is an issue. In the UK companies that have sold clothing made by child labour have been singled out for negative publicity that has both damaged their profits, and in some instances altered their practices.
But as I said at the outset of this piece, viewing this issue in simple terms may not have the desired effect. Several campaigners, politicians and journalists have emphasised that simply stopping child labour without examining its root causes or addressing the consequences of its eradication is not appropriate. As Karen Graham writing in the Digital Journal (Feb 7th 2014), has stated that, for many families living in poverty “Work is not an option, but a necessity.” It seems likely that the majority of child labourers are working simply so that their families can survive. Poverty forces them into employment and prevents them from attending school. In situations where families have such low incomes they are dependent on every family member making a contribution to ensure that they can eat and keep a roof over their heads.
An example of the pressures that exist was provided by Vaibhav Ganjapure, a journalist working for The Times of India who wrote (Febr 1st 2014):-
“For Shyamabai Kale, her two daughters help her in washing utensils at many homes”. Shyamabai Kale says “My husband works in Madhya Pradesh and I remain alone. I can’t leave them at any government school as it involves risk. If they study, when [will] they learn the work necessary for survival?”
India has undergone a period of unprecedented economic growth. Yet for many millions of Indian families their financial situation has not improved and they still find themselves living in poverty. Indeed, it has been suggested that the period of economic expansion may even have contributed to the problem. The head of Bachpan Bacchao Andolan, a Delhi based charity working with children and families has stated that
“This is the most ironical part of India’s growth. The middle classes are demanding cheap, docile labour.”
Sadly, this cheap labour has often been drawn from a juvenile population that would be better served through obtaining education. When India’s economy cools, as it has already begun to do, will this situation get better or worse?
How should we react as teachers to this situation? If we are to become embroiled in campaigns for the right to education and the elimination of child labour, then we must surely be aware of the causes of the problem and demand changes in other areas. Inclusive education must be viewed in the context of wider societal issues. The education we provide must be much broader and must not only be aimed at children. We need to assist families by working with them to see how education can be a route out of poverty. This may be a longer term goal than the immediacy of bringing in an income through child labour, but must be seen as assisting in lifting families above their current difficult situations.
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) has noble intentions and needs to be enforced as was originally intended. However, this needs to happen alongside other measures of social welfare and awareness raising if this is to happen. As teachers we need to work beyond the classroom to assist families in gaining a greater understanding of the advantages that can accrue from education. We also need to develop more flexible schooling arrangements that recognise that simply telling children that they have to attend school is not working, and find ways to work with families to see what can be done to encourage them to work with teachers for the ultimate benefit of their children and their community. Shyamabai Kale expresses concerns that attending school will not prepare her children to learn “the work necessary for survival”. Perhaps it is time for us to review the kind of education we are offering and to see how Shyamabai Kale can be assisted in recognising that education may not just provide the skills for survival, but also a route to a better standard of living.