First Children's World Congress on Child Labour
Florence, Italy: 9-13 May 2004

Stop Child Labour - School is the Best Place to Work

Speech by Gerard Oonk
India Committee of the Netherlands

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me start by by first making two somewhat provocative statements

One has already been made by Sonia Rosen and I want to elaborate a little bit on that, and that is: poverty is not the main cause of child labour.

The second is: the policy of governments and international donors is too much focused on the worst forms or the abusive forms of child labour instead of all child labour and the relation between education and child labour.

I'm saying that on behalf of the campaign "Stop Child Labour: School Is the Best Place to Work", a bit too long for a title for a campaign but, ok, let's call it Stop Child Labour. What this campaign is working at is to redefine the struggle against child labour in its relation to the right to full-time education, and to link that to the role of international donors like ILO, UNICEF, World Bank, national governments, and so on.

First the poverty issue. It's very remarkable that in two states of India, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh and l, states which are not so rich , most of the children are going to school and there is very little child labour. Of course children still do work after school but most of the children go to full time education. Well, a lot of people don't expect this because the general impression is: if you are a poor child in India you cannot go to school. This is h is not the case. There is a third state in India, Andhra Pradesh, where there is now a movement for the last ten years, led by the NGO MV Foundation which has brought about 250.000 poor children, mostly from agricultural labourers' and small farmers families, to school., Among these 250.000 are a lot of girls and boys tied up by so-called debt-induced bonded labour, in fact of form of slavery, as well as a lot of girls and sometimes who have been working long days in the households. So, that shows it is possible to bring poor children to school, by investing in education, by local mobilisation, by - of course - free education and - especially important - by establishing the social norm amongst communities that a child should be in school and not work.

I cannot enough stress the importance of this element. The social norm has to be developed among people that it is not right for children to work. What is happening in many instances where we target too much on specific forms of child labour, is that we do condone a lot of other forms of child labour, which is also preventing children from attending full-time education. But the Convention on the rights of child is clear enough: any work that is either hazardous or interferes with the education of the child should be prohibited. So, the Convention does not talk about the worst forms of child labour alone, however important of course it is to include these children. Our contention as Stop Child Labour campaign is that you can in fact only reach those children who are in the worst forms of child labour if you address the whole population of child labourers. Otherwise you cannot create that social norm and you will pull out some children working in these worst forms and other children will be recruited, as is happening in many places today.

So, our problems with policies of governments and international donors is that they reinforcing the idea some children can in fact not go to full-time education because they are too poor and have to work. Everybody agrees education is important and more money is needed and our campaign strongly supports that. However, donors often have no vision how to deal with the issue of child labour as a part of, as an aspect of educational funding and policies.
What you often see is that the whole focus is on the infrastructure, on the quality of education, in the sense of providing school books, training teachers - which is is all extremely important - but they forget about the population of out-of-school children, which for example in a country like India, but also in other countries, is quite large. So the school system itself has no strategy how to include out-of school cildren and does not feel responsible to bring those children into school which are now out of school. Thus the school system needs to do more than just providing education. On the other hand, child labour strategies often lack aentry point or link into the formal education system and do piece by piece projects on their own.
These are the issues we are trying to address and we are in fact saying there is too little linkage between the two elements of child labour and education. Take the Dakar framework of Action: no mention of child labour. Take the World Bank, the major funder of education projects: they only talk about harmful child labour. Does that mean every child which is not in full-time education? I don't think so.

So, in fact, coming back to the poverty argument there is a big lack of political will to bring children to school. There are is a lot of indifferently badly functioning schools. So, what can be done? What we suggest is the following: if educational funding is being put under conditions by these big donors, what they should do is not only fund education in terms of infrastructures and teachers etc., they should also fund those campaigns, those groups, those governments, those non-governmental organisations and trade unions which are doing social mobilisation to get all the children into school. Also programmes should be supported to bring all those children, who are already for example 10-11 and missed the first grades, into school because, That shows that we really care also about those children. We are not saying "leave those children by the way side, they are too old now and forget about them",. No they should be brought to school as well And one important point which I still want to make mention is that the whole bureaucracy of the school system itself pushes out a lot of, especially poor, children. The school system itself is often so insensitive to children by asking for birth certificates, medical certificates etc. It should be the responsibility of the school to help parents with it, while now it is very often the responsibility of poor illiterate parents who don't know how to deal with it. So, these kind of stupid, insensitive bureaucracies drive out a lot of poor children because they do not know how to deal with the school system as such. Helping children and their parents to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of going to shool should also be part of the education system. It should be part of the overall aim to bring every child to school.

Thank you.


India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - November 22, 2004