Nepal under pressure to reduce child labor
By Mallika Aryal
KATHMANDU - Last December, Pradeep Dongol, child protection officer at the Kathmandu-based Children and Women in Social Service and Human Rights (CWISH), received an urgent call from one of the NGO's many offices in Nepal's sprawling capital city.
Dongol rushed over to find an 11-year-old girl in the care of a CWISH staff member: her eyes were sunken, her hands covered in wounds, and she had lost patches of hair from her head. He later learned that she had escaped from the house where she was working because she could no longer "bear ... all the abuse".
Reema (not her real name) was studying in grade three in a village about 400 kilometers away from the capital when her parents
decided to send her to Kathmandu with perfect strangers.
The family, a young couple, promised Reema's parents that the girl would live with them, go to a good school and be an "older sister" to their young son. However, Reema's life in Kathmandu turned out to be very different. The couple never enrolled her in school; she ate nothing but leftovers, took care of the couple's son, did all the housework and was never paid.
She had very little contact with her folks back home, was regularly beaten, and often pulled by her hair. One day, on her way to drop the little boy off at his school, she met some of the local CWISH workers who taught at a school nearby. When she went home and expressed interest in going to that school, she was beaten. The next day she ran away, and found her way to the CWISH office where she asked for protection.
Of the 7.7 million children between the ages of five and 17 in Nepal, an estimated 3.14 million are working. Two-thirds of these children are below the age of 14. A recent rapid assessment conducted by Plan International, one of the oldest children's development organizations in the world, and World Education estimates that over 165,000 working children are domestic laborers.
"Their plight ... does not get importance because it happens within the four walls of someone's home and not out in the open," Bishnu Timilsina, a team leader for CWISH in Nepal, told IPS.
He highlighted the Nepali tradition of bringing children from remote villages to work in private homes in urban areas, adding that, historically, wealthy couples would engage in this practice by promising rural families a better life and education and employment opportunities for one of their children.
Such offers are hard to resist: though Nepal has made progress in poverty reduction, the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Report for 2013 placed it at 157th out of 187 countries listed.
According to the National Living Standard Survey 2010-2011 more than 30 percent of Nepalis live on less than US$14 per month. About 80% of Nepalis, like Reema's family, live in rural areas and depend on subsistence farming. Young children are expected to help their parents with farming and household chores. Roughly half the children under five years of age in Nepal's remote rural belt are malnourished, while their communities lack basic services like primary healthcare, education and safe drinking water.
The custom of plucking children from their villages gained traction with the rapid industrialization of the 1990s, when the growth of the middle class coupled with internal migration during the People's War years (1996-2006) fueled demand for cheap labor.
Children quickly filled the gap left by women abandoning their traditional roles as homemakers in search of paid work, and took on all the domestic duties from cooking, scrubbing and washing clothes to caring for infants and the infirm. Now, according to Plan International and World Education's rapid assessment, there are as many child domestic workers in urban centers (62,579) as in rural areas (61,471).
Child rights activists say one of the biggest challenges is the widespread social perception that child labor is not necessarily a bad thing. "There's an understanding that children have to work so that they learn the 'value' of labor," Nita Gurung, program manager of the state-run Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB), told IPS. As a result, enforcing laws that prohibit child domestic labor is not easy.
People see young children laboring in the homes of their "neighbors, relatives and friends" and accept this as a normal part of life, says Danee Luhar, a child protection officer with the Nepal country office of the United Nations Children's Fund. "There is a need to break through that perception so that society renders domestic child labor unacceptable," he told IPS.
Nepal has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International labor Organization's Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor and ILO Convention 138 on minimum age for admission to employment. These international accords were translated into national laws via Nepal's 2007 Interim Constitution and are enshrined in the 1992 Children's Act, the 2000 Child labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, and the 2002 Bonded labor Prohibition Act.
However, the creation of national and international legislation without an accompanying increase in the capacity to enforce them has led to confusion about which government agency is implementing which laws in cases of domestic child labor.
At present, 10 labor inspectors are charged with overseeing the entire country and its population of 30.49 million people. These inspectors only cover formal sectors like mining, tourism and cigarette and carpet manufacturing; it is still unclear who is responsible for the rescue and rehabilitation of child laborers in informal settings, like private homes.
"It is extremely problematic because in cases of abuse and exploitation there's first a confusion about who is in charge, and what law or act to interpret," says UNICEF's Luhar.
When Reema escaped her employers, for instance, she was taken to a safe house and a case was filed on her behalf at the government's labor office. Later, at the insistence of authorities, the perpetrators paid Reema cash compensation in the amount of $210, and signed a legal document agreeing to release her.
Reema is now safely back in her village but has yet to see the money, and her case at the labor office is pending.
"On paper there are regulations to make the perpetrators accountable but that is rarely done, and protection of victims is still not a priority," child advocate Kamal Guragain told IPS.