Published in: The Daily Star on October 7, 2015

She is 11. She was found crying on a street in the capital. A minor, burnt with a hot cooking paddle with other injury marks found on her body, Mahfuza Akhter Happy had told police and the media that she had been beaten and tortured by a couple. No proof was needed. Happy looked frail, had swollen black eyes and a broken leg.

He is 29. He is a fast-bowler with the national side, a paceman who has played 37 Tests and has taken 70 wickets. His name is on the Lord’s honours board for taking 5-98 against England in May 2010. Shahadat Hossain, Bangladesh’s high profile cricketer, handed himself over to the police amid allegations that he and his wife tortured a housemaid, who was a minor.

Happy will soon be forgotten. While most of us will use Happy as a reference to highlight an issue, or to provide an exciting coverage in media, she will soon become history. Shahadat’s wife Nritto will probably have to carry the stigma of being abusive for some time. But eventually, that abused little girl of eleven will only be remembered as an incidental reference. That’s what’s wrong with what most of us do. We write and we cover. We forget, move on and make more space for more bad news. As a result, issues continue to sit on our table without any humane follow-up at the end.

How do these little kids end up in our houses? Most of them are seen acting as “playmates” to our children and grandchildren, with daily chores to run. In the last four years, the number of child workers has gone up by a million. Almost 7.9 million children in Bangladesh are engaged in different occupations. 1.5 million of them live in cities while 6.4 million are spotted in rural areas. Almost 1.3 million children work more than 90 hours a week. 94 percent of them work for over 10 hours a day; only 16 percent receive health services; 51 percent of them earn between Tk 100-400 a week; 36 percent receive Tk 401-800, and 12 percent get around Tk 801-2000.

There are 45 types of occupational classifications which may be listed as hazardous. Out of this list, children work in 41 of them. 73.5 percent of the child workers are male while 26.5 percent are female. According to BBS, 1.3 million child labourers are engaged in extremely hazardous occupations.

Laws are formed and then consequently are either broken or ignored. Right after independence, Bangladesh enacted the Children Act 1974 (Act XXXIX of 1974) for the protection of children and their rights. Furthermore, the National Children Policy 1994 pledged to undertake many development projects in this regard, including the National Action Plan for Children 2005-2010. Labour Law 2013 prohibits labour engagement for all under 14 years of age. Yet, in spite of so many laws, acts and plans, we routinely choose to ignore Article 34 of our own Constitution, which clearly talks about forced labour. No one has ever been punished so far, for violating the laws pertaining to the employment of child labour. The Child Labour Index and map, produced by global risks advisory firm Maplecroft, rates 68 countries as ‘extreme risk’ with Bangladesh, China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan amongst those with the most extreme abuse cases of child workers. In our country, there are many children, even those under ten, who end up catering to our domestic requirements.

Internationally, and quite ironically, Bangladesh is also a signatory to the ILO Convention 182 adopted in 1999, which defines the worst forms of child labour and includes “all types of slavery”, including child trafficking, “all activities which sexually exploit children”, “any involvement in illegal activities” and any work which could “damage the health, safety or well-being of children” as completely forbidden. In spite of so many laws, conventions and pledges, kids like Happy live and serve many of us under inhumane conditions.

Now, why would a child end up being a labourer? In this regard, the connection between child labour and economic vulnerability becomes a critical consideration. 31.6 percent of children living under the poverty line earn less than Tk 80 a day. Though officially, 99 percent of children have access to primary education in our country, Bangladesh faces a real challenge in terms of bringing primary-age children to school, as around 600,000 children are out of school and 48 percent of them are involved in child labour, according to a recent UNESCO survey. Apparently, one in five children drop out of school by the time they reach class 5. Many of them become child labourers because they need to earn for their families. At the same time, the National Children Policy formulated in 2011, insists on the prohibition of child labour from hazardous and risky occupations and has also set a goal to eradicate child labour by 2015. Yet, contrary to all these noble goals, 6.7 percent of the child labourers work in the formal sector, while 93.7 percent are engaged in the informal sector.

It’s time to steer our children back to school. If India could pass the Right to Education Act in 2009, whereby almost 2 million children were targeted for rehabilitation through education with scholarships, stipends, regular health checkups and nutrition, why can’t we? According to World Bank data, in Bangladesh where education is one of the fundamental rights, only 2.18 percent (2014-15) of GDP is allocated for the education sector, whereas in 2009, around 3.8 percent and in 2010, around 4.72 percent of the GDP was allocated for education in India and Nepal, respectively. Private-public partnerships could be initiated to bridge the gap between the need and reality of the hour. Opportunities of partnering in the RMG sector are huge. Since crèche is a basic requirement, RMG factory owners could perhaps begin by setting up primary schools in every factory that they set up, while other sectors could follow suit.

Not so long ago, I saw a young child working at a close relative’s home. I had politely asked the hostess if the kid was going to school. Her negative response included a defence. She said, “But she learns Arabic at home when the huzur comes to teach our kids.” Eventually, our relationship soured as I stayed away from her for the longest time possible. Given that ideologically all of us suffer from multiple differences at multiple levels, there should at least be one plane where we should all be able to speak a common language. All of us should be able to pledge for the right to education for all children. All our kids must go to school. No child should ever be hit, tortured, burnt or suffer indignities at our homes. Kids who are forced to work at home fulfil our whims and fancy without ever being part of our privileged lives.

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