Evaluating Strategies for Combating Child Labor in India

My project has been largely focused on evaluating the newest initiative implemented by the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (ILO-IPEC) and funded by the United States Department of Labor called “Converging Against Child Labor”.  The project’s backbone is a poverty alleviation strategy.  It focuses on bringing welfare support to families so that they can improve their livelihood and children will no longer be compelled to bring in financial contributions in lieu of attending school.  I attended the government school teachers’ conference to gain a better understanding from the perspective of teachers, and the overwhelming response echoed the sentiment of MVF: poverty does not cause child labor, rather, child labor causes poverty.  One government school teacher told me a story about the Indian government giving a family a goat, in hopes of helping them prosper so they can send their child to school.  Instead, the child stayed home to care for the goat.  The child continues to work, despite these incentives, and continues to remain in poverty.
MVF wholeheartedly echoes the belief that poverty alleviation is not the correct tactic; instead, in all interview with their staff the word “motivation” was repeatedly used.  Their strategy is centered on encouraging whole villages to send their children to their bridge camps, and inspiring employers to forgive debts and permit children to attend school.  By motivation, MVF literally means knocking on people’s doors and even putting on performances, such as a street play on the dangers of bonded child labor.  Once the first employer forbids child labor on his farm or in his factory, he is held up as an example, a community wide celebration may even take place in his honor.

Moreover, nearly all government and ILO projects have focused solely on the list of hazardous occupations for children specified under India’s Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation Act) of 1986.  Yet, agriculture which is the biggest industry for child laborers, is not on this list and therefore not spotlighted.  This is the case under the new “Converging” project.  It is therefore up to NGOs like MVF to focus on these child labor majorities in their policy work, especially in cotton and vegetable seed hybridization where children are preferred for their delicate and nimble fingers and multinational corporations escape liability by pinning blame on subcontractors.

But the question remains, is it that simple, just spread awareness and people will respond?  In Gattikal Villlage, before MVF set up the bridge camps, which are interim schooling camps to prepare children for formal schools after they are taken out of child labor situation, they set up three day camps to acquaint the parents and children to the idea.  How did they get the employers to agree to send the kids to the three day camp? Told them it was a picnic!  Might seem too good to be true, but the numbers don’t lie.  MVF’s strategy has resulted in whole villages where every child attends school.  And visiting the bridge camps confirms the positive impact; classrooms filled with laughing children learning addition who just months ago were cross-pollinating cotton seeds.




re: Evaluating Strategies for Combating Child Labor in India

Hi Alex,
Volunteering as an intern with the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is very commendable and it seems that the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF) bridge camps are an incredibly successful way of bridging the gap between the release of bonded child labourers and formal schooling.
Your statement “poverty does not cause child labor, rather, child labor causes poverty”, is an interesting one. It must be said that the relationship between poverty and child labour (especially bonded labour) is a cyclical relationship rather than a cause and effect. In many cases of child bondage labour, the parents themselves are steeped in poverty and they see the money forwarded from the ‘sale’ of the child’s labour as a way to survive or in some cases to pay for material goods. It would be unusual for parents to sell their children if they were not suffering from poverty.
Addressing the lack of motivation to solve the problem of child labour is an incredibly effective tactic. However, it will require social and political change which will not come easily even when all the necessary outer structures are in place. To give you an example from a Human Rights Watch document: any ‘unused’ money set aside for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers are re-absorbed by the Central government and allocated to a different project. In India the Central and State government work together to combat child bonded labour. In 1989-90 the Indian government used 76.16% of the budget allocated for rehabilitation of bonded labourers for that purpose. In 1991-2 the percentage dropped to 47.83%. The excuse given as to why the allocated funds were not used optimally was that the State government failed to submit receipts of expenditure. In other words, bureaucracy and lack of motivation to improve the human rights afforded to these children prevented effective change. So implementing change by addressing the lack of motivation would yield significant results. Whether awareness-raising campaigns alone are enough to target the problem is dubious. Rather, a good suggestion would be to combine the awareness-raising with poverty reduction tactics as well as legal enforcement of the consequences. We must remember that India has ratified numerous ILO conventions as well as the CRC and other legislation relating to child labour and child bonded labour.
By instituting these changes, we can support the work done by MVF (and other grassroots organisations) on the ground and create lasting change from both directions: from the top down and from the bottom up.