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An International Movement to promote Children’s Participation

Nandana Reddy, head of the Bangalore-based Concerned for Working Children (CWC) organization, says they have organized an exclusive working children’s union called the Bhima Sangha – a first of its kind in Asia. For its work among children, the CWC has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year (1). The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 is to be awarded to the European Union (EU).

Anyway CWC nomination is very important. Nandana Reddy wrote me that “we do need an International Movement to promote Children’s Participation and their world view. We are hoping that this can be a beginning towards setting up a ’virtual’ International Movement”.

Makkala Toofan TV – Launch on October 21, 2012

The Concerned for Working Children announces the launch of Makkala Toofan TV Programme. “Makkala Toofan will commence broadcast from October 21 (Sunday) at 12:30 pm on DD Chandana channel. A new episode of the programme will be telecast every Sunday at the same time on DD Chandana.

Makkala Toofan aims to create an e-media platform for children and by children to enable their sustained participation in the community and district. It facilitates a process by which children are seen and accepted as producers, users and subjects of media. Makkala Toofan intends to strengthen the information building and information sharing capacities of children’s groups, Makkala Panchayats and Makkala Grama Sabhas across the State of Karnataka. Through Makkala Toofan TV Programme, the Concerned for Working Children is offering a media alternative that is fun and educative and one that children shape themselves.

The design and development of the themes covered has involved children right from the conceptual stage. The programmes include news that is relevant to children, information regarding child rights, structures and systems, children’s achievements ; tasteful entertainment, cultural exposure, music, riddles etc.

Prior to each of the children’s episodes, celebrities speak for a minute about what children’s participation means to them. The celebrities who are already part of this are Mr. Chandrashekar Kambar, Mr. Suresh Heblikar, Mr. Rahul Dravid, Mrs. Vasundara Das and Mr. S. G. Vasudev. We believe this is a critical addition to the media products available for children, and one that is focused on learning and rights”, declared CWC (2).

Blanket ban on child labour will hit right to livelihood

India’s cabinet has approved amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 to bar children under 14 from all kinds of paid work. In an article in the Deccan Herald, CWC founder Nandana Reddy argues that in fact, some kinds of work can be beneficial to children and such a blanket ban denies thousands of children the right to a livelihood.

“Since 1986 India has been unable to enforce the existing ban and child labourers (5 to 14) have increased from 111 million in 1951 to 126 million in 2012. This new amendment will be even more difficult to enforce and will further push children into more invisible, unmonitored and therefore hazardous situations. In contrast, ‘summer jobs for kids’ are widely advocated in the west by more than three hundred websites that promote the advantages of work for children as young as five.

Kathy Peel, ‘America’s Family Manager’ offers smart solutions for a ‘Happy and Organised Home’. She says “From the time our boys were 9 and 5, they had to earn and save money for big purchases and summer camp. They sold flower-bulbs and swept driveways. As they grew they did odd jobs and ran their own businesses, acquiring great experience : They learned to communicate with adults professionally, realised the importance of being responsible, and discovered creative ways to advertise. They also learned to delay gratification, discovered how to make good financial decisions, and acquired an appreciation for what things cost. Finally, they experienced the satisfaction of a job done well.”

In India we are confused and have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The Child Labour Act with all its short comings, was intended to protect children for hazardous work and prevent employers from exploiting children ; but it was also supposed to provide children with protected avenues of employment and the possibility to familiarise themselves with the world of commerce. A Draft Bill proposed by the Concerned for Working Children in 1985 went beyond the Act in several respects by proposing a large developmental component that included : integrating work and education both in the formal curriculum so that children be prepared for the world of work (as the law permits children to work above the age of 14 years) ; the setting up of ‘flexi schools’ ; that the provisions of the ‘Apprenticeship Act’ be explored, and the safety and educational components of it improved and strengthened.

Regrettably, influenced by the WTO, the ILO’s International Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour (IPEC) and pushed by hardliners in India, strategies have been designed for all children based on generalised examples of children in hazardous and intolerable forms of labour such as the match and firework industry, that account for a very small percentage of the child work force. Progressively the banned list has been expanded and little or nothing has been done about regulating ‘safe’ occupations.
There is a danger in these generalisations derived from worst case scenarios as it shuts down all avenues of employment – even the safe and developmentally necessary ones. It compels a ‘black and white’ view that precludes a nuanced approach.

Punitive measures

The strategy enunciated by the Child Labour Act and Policy to impose bans and use punitive measures to enforce it is further simplified in the Child Labour Action Plan. The Action Plan targets only the demand side of child labour by penalising parents and employers while paying no attention to the supply side and the causes that push children into the work force, such as poverty, poor quality education, few options for vocational training and the increasing scarcity of good public schools due to closure.

Many children work in order to go to school and take up summer jobs to save up for school books and other necessities. It is common to see young boys and girls working in juice parlours or grocery shops during the holidays. The children feel it gives them experience besides the much needed pocket money. However, in recent years, there have been raids on these establishments and these children have been taken into ‘custody’ and put into institutions or Observation Homes, while the intolerable forms of child labour are allowed to continue. No child should work in conditions that do not contribute to their normal growth and development. Protecting children from exploitation and providing them access to education is an obligation of the state and the right of every child. However, when this obligation is twisted to criminalise child work and enforcement is through penalising parents and traumatising children it ceases to be a right and turns into coercion. Law enforcement has never succeeded through compulsion alone and the reason that we have such an abysmal record of implementing the existing Act is because we refuse to recognise the root causes for the supply side of child labour – one of them being poverty.

Work is a positive ethic that should be encouraged. There are many skills to be learnt from work. Minister for women and child development Renuka Choudhary, the one sane voice in the largely obscurantist lobby, believes that a blanket ban denies children the right to a livelihood by preventing them from picking up vital skills passed on by master craftsmen.

We need to remove our blinkers and move away from this ‘black and white’ perspective towards a more educated approach to children and work. Protect children we must, but allowing them to experience safe employment while going to school is also important, especially as our education is so one-dimensional providing literacy at best. Do we want to provide safe opportunities that encourage growth or do we want a stunted generation, virtually unemployable when they are old enough to work, with no entrepreneurship skills ?” wrote Nandana Reddy (3).

Open Letter to United Nations

An open letter has been sent to the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights, Mrs Navanethem Pillay, signed by 74 experts from the academic world and from civil society around the world, dissenting from the proposal and suggesting a new approach about “STREET CHILDREN : A Mapping & Gapping Review of the Literature 2000 to 2010 “.

The letter coordinated by Cristiano Morsolin for Latin America and Antonella Invernizzi and Brian Milne (Children’s rights research consultants, France) for Europe, Africa and Asia, opens expressing an immediate concern : “We have examined the documents and the material presented on the site and we believe a that a wider and better prepared proposal is required in order to support and promote valid and effective policies so as to promote the rights of children who work and/or live on the streets ; lacking are some elements which require deeper consideration, as for example the importance of recognising the economic, social and cultural rights of children and of adolescents” (4).

Nandana Reddy supports this open letter and also Michael Bourdillon ; he taught in the University of Zimbabwe for over 25 years, before retiring to focus on street and working children, on whom he has researched and published widely, as well as being involved in their support and training.

Professor Bourdillon declared that “after working with an organisation supporting street children for ten years, I became aware of the need to think more carefully about children’s work generally. In the late 1990s, together with colleagues and students, I set about learning more about working children in Zimbabwe through a number of small research projects, and then to see what could be done to help them.
I was introduced to CWC by Save the Children, Norway, who invited Nandana Reddy and Nagaraj Shetiger (from Bhima Sangha) to attend a workshop on children’s work in Zimbabwe. They introduced us to the idea of a working children’s movement and the importance of empowering children to do things for themselves. Following this meeting, I was fortunate to be able to visit CWC in Bangalore, and to take part in one of their training workshops on child participation in Kundapur. I was very impressed with what Bhima Sangha, with the respectful support of the CWC, achieved for deprived children in Karnataka. I was also impressed with the way children developed communication skills and self-confidence in their training programmes and in their various activities. I was subsequently appointed as a faculty member of Dhruva, and in that capacity helped the CWC facilitate a training programme in child participation of educationalists in Zambia.

Partly as a result of what I learned from CWC, and with the support of Save the Children, I helped working children who were establishing a Zimbabwean branch of the African Movement of Working Children and Youth. Later I attended regional and international meetings of working children in Kundapur and in Siena, Italy.

The lessons I learned from CWC about child-centred approaches and the importance of child participation shaped my involvement with working children in Zimbabwe, and have remained central to much of my writing and research about working children and child protection since. I have also been able to use this knowledge and experience to involve children in other research projects, and in advising other child support programmes. Their recognition by the Norwegian Parliament is well deserved and should encourage others to follow their example in empowering children to help themselves (5).


The struggle for children’s rights, working children protagonism, human dignity, and a better life in Latin America, Africa, and India is well documented.

New volumes go beyond that discussion, taking aim at the debate surrounding the working children’s movement.

Significant international scholarship has recently emerged to theorize children’s participatory rights. European scholar Manfred Liebel (coordinator of the European Network of Masters in Children’s Rights (ENMCR) and his colleagues Karl Hanson, Ivan Saadi and Wouter Vandenhole contribute to this area by importantly conceptualizing children’s rights « from below » in the book : Children’s Rights from Below : Cross-Cultural Perspectives. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Drawing on sociology, political science, and socio-legal studies this thirteen chapter volume focuses primarily on majority world children on the margins. Assuming readers with a degree of familiarity with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and surrounding debates, Liebel and his fellow contributors are able to deeply explore the possibilities and challenges of acknowledging and fostering children’s rights from below (6).

Most children in Africa start working from a very early age - helping the family or earning wages. Should this work be abolished, tolerated, or encouraged ? Such questions are the subject of much debate : international and national organizations, employers, parents, and children often have diverse opinions and put pressure in different directions. The authors of the book : African Children at Work- Working and Learning in Growing Up for Life (2012), Gerd Spittler, Michael Bourdillon (Eds.), contribute to the discussion through intensive fieldwork and careful analysis of children’s activities. They consider childhood and family, work and play, work in rural and urban contexts, paths to learning, work and school, and children’s rights (7).

Every day millions of children in developing countries face adversities of many kinds, yet there is a shortage of sound evidence concerning their plight and an urgent need to identify the most appropriate and effective policy responses from among the multiple approaches that exist. The collection of journal papers : Child Protection in Development - Development in Practice Books, by Michael Bourdillon, William Myers, Routledge Pub, 2012, aims to engage with researchers and debates in the field so as to understand better some of the numerous risks confronted by children in developing countries. It highlights the complexity of protecting children in various forms of adversity, challenges conventional wisdom about what protects children, demonstrates why it is essential to consult with children to protect them successfully, and suggests that successful protection must be based on strong empirical understanding of the situation and the perspectives of children and communities involved. The contributors are all experienced researchers and practitioners who have worked for many years with children in developing countries. The book offers suggestions for reform of current child protection policies, based on empirical findings around a range of child protection concerns, including children’s work, independent migration, family separation, early marriage, and military occupation. Together, the contributions provide a body of knowledge important to humanitarian and development policy and practice. This book was published as a special issue of Development in Practice (8).

The book « Diversity in Motion », written by Cristiano Morsolin, with the support of Terre des Hommes TDH Italy (Ed. Antropos-Bogota), analyzes the realities of 800,000 working childrens in Bolivia : shoe-shine boys and girls work in La Paz, wearing a ski mask partly to resist pollution, partly to hide their identity and protect themselves from discrimination ; they are ticket inspectors on the buses of Cochabamba ; informal workers in the markets in Salar de Uyuni, where they sell bottles of water to the tourists who visit the salt plains ; farmers of Brazilian nuts for many months in the year risking to catch malaria in the jungles near Riberalta . Robin Cavagnoud, of the French Institute of Andean Studies IFEA of La Paz, on the occasion of the presentation of the book pointed out that « in the Andean countries the majority of children workers and adolescents are located in rural areas, where the economic participation of children is linked to their socialization and development within the community and family, but it is not an imposition of the parents. Working in the fields, taking care of animals ... are part of an activity that has a cultural identity ». These children and adolescents work to help the family, to support themselves in their studies, to provide for their personal expenses, to secure themselves a better future compared to their fathers and brothers buried by silicosis and accidents in mines or plantations of sugar cane. Since the ’90s, they have grouped themselves in an organization called NATs (Ninos y adolescentes trabajadores, the acronym in Spanish) present in Bolivia, South America and spread to other parts of the world, to claim their right to decent work, with proper working hours and adequate health conditions for children, but also to defend their ability to study and play like everyone else (9).

Cetri- Centre Intercontinenal of Bruxell wrote an interesting book coordinated by Aurelie Leroy (I am co-author) “Contre le travail des enfant ?” in french (10) and translation in spanish (11), about working children in the world, in India and about CWC experience.

Making a Difference

To help working children gain a voice, CWC facilitated the formation of a working children’s union, the Bhima Sangha, in 1990. With 13,000 members in rural and urban Karnataka, the Bhima Sangha has been a powerful advocate of the rights of working children nationally and internationally. Members have travelled across the world and spoken at forums such as child labour conferences at Amsterdam and Oslo. It is one of the founding members of the International Movement of Working Children and is presently its Asian regional co-ordinator .
Nandana Reddy chaired the International Working Group on Child Labor (IWGCL).

During the Amsterdam Child Labour Conference (26 February 1997), Minister Pronk, Minister for Development Co-operation, Netherlands, declared : « We should not discuss child labour without involving the children themselves in the decision-making processes. An adult sitting behind a desk cannot for a moment imagine what it is like to be an undernourished, overworked child, stretched beyond the limits of its physical strength. We need inside information and this can only be gained by involving the children themselves. Children are, moreover, perfectly capable of assessing their own situation and coming up with solutions. That is why we are delighted to have working children from Asia, Africa and Latin America in our midst to share with us their views on child labour. I should now like to extend an especially warm welcome to Lakshmi, Kumar, Sawai, Claude Francois, Romaine, Lidja, Vidal and Ana Maria (members of International Movement of Working Children) » (12).


(1) The Concerned for Working Children (CWC - India) among nominees for Nobel peace prize, Cristiano Morsolin, Forum des Alternative, on-line : http://www.forumdesalternatives.org/EN/readarticle.php?article_id=10643

(2) http://www.concernedforworkingchildren.org/news/2012/10/makkala-toofan-tv-launch-on-october-21-2012/

(3) http://www.deccanherald.com/content/276226/blanket-ban-child-labour-hit.html

(4) http://www.crin.org/resources/infoDetail.asp?ID=28068&flag=news

(5) http://concernedforworkingchildren.blogspot.com/p/michael-bourdillon.html

(6) http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-296256244/manfred-liebel-ed-children-s-rights-from-below

(7) http://www.lit-verlag.de/isbn/3-643-90205-4

(8) http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products

(9) http://www.fides.org/aree/news/newsdet.php?idnews=29347&lan=eng

(10) http://www.cetri.be/spip.php?rubrique117

(11) http://www.editorialpopular.com/Shop/PO_ficha.asp?IdProducts=533

(12) http://pangaea.org/street_children/world/labor2.htm

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.