With the recent changes in India's child labour law, we are once again reminded of the innumerable children who are continuing to work in inhumane conditions in sweat shops, mines, factories and behind closed doors from where their voices are never heard.
Over the past decade the number of children in paid occupations has reduced in India from more than 12 million in 2001 to about 4 million in 2011. Now, the Cabinet has approved the banning of child labour for those under the age of 14. This is mainly to align with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which makes education a fundamental right for all children in the 6-14 age group. While the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 banned the employment of children up to the age of 14 in hazardous occupations, this proposed Amendment bill prohibits employment of children below 14 years in all occupations and processes, other than family enterprises and farm lands (after school hours and holidays).
"A critical finding from the research is that the majority of children (58%) continuing their education at the age of 15 were in reality combining school with paid and unpaid work."
Based on their research in Andhra Pradesh, Young Lives, a longitudinal study on childhood poverty, has some interesting insights to offer in terms of children and work. The research from its samples of disadvantaged children reveals that there is a decreasing enrolment in schools as children grow older. While 98% percent of the children were enrolled in schools at age eight, this decreased to 90% at age 12, 77% by age 15 and 49% by the time the children turned 19.
A critical finding from the research is that the majority of children (58%) continuing their education at the age of 15 were in reality combining school with paid and unpaid work. What is striking is the fact that the number of children combining unpaid work and schooling increased from just 4% at the age of 12 to 45% at 15. Interestingly, the number of children combining paid work and schooling remained almost constant at 13%. Boys (56%) and the poorest third (60%) constituted a major proportion of children combining school with paid work.
We also found that children who participated in paid work at the age of 12, were 63% less likely to progress through secondary education, with girls being much more disadvantaged than boys and 37% less likely to pass Grade X.
"[G]irls are at a disadvantage not only in terms of the amount of time they spend in school but also in time spent studying after school, since they must shoulder caring and domestic chores from an early age."
Longitudinal analysis of time use data by boys and girls also reveals highly gendered roles emerging from a very young age. We found that girls constituted 60% of children combining school with unpaid work at age 14/15. Girls also spent significantly less time on studies as well as leisure at the age of 12 and 15. So girls are at a disadvantage not only in terms of the amount of time they spend in school but also in time spent studying after school, since they must shoulder caring and domestic chores from an early age. Our analysis reveals that children who spent three hours or more in domestic chores at age 12, were 76% less likely to complete secondary education in comparison to children who did not engage in household work. Children who spent one hour on domestic work were 9% less likely to complete secondary education.
Young Lives' qualitative research captures some of the reasons children do not continue schooling and the relationship of leaving school and child work.
Regarding continuation of studies, a sarpanch (village headman) says, "Poor families think that it is appropriate to stop a girl's education once she attains puberty ... Regarding boys, [if they are poor] they stop education after [Grade 7], and believe the son should help the family looking after oxen, watering fields, etc.
Mamatha's mother explains why her daughter, a 15-year-old girl from the Backward Classes, has left school. "We thought we will continue my daughter's education but there is no facility to travel. They have to go to school walking [long distances] and it is not safe for girls near the canal ... that's why we stopped her studies."
The study also finds that more girls than boys had left school between the ages of 12 and 15, but hardly any gender difference is apparent in enrollment of boys (90%) and girls (89%) belonging to the least poor households. In other words, the better off you are, the more likely you are to keep your girl in school. There are many reasons for why children have left school by the age of 15. It may be a sudden shock such as the death of a parent. Yet we here also see gendered patterns emerge. A third of the boys cite poor school quality and 18% cite paid work as key reasons for leaving school, while a quarter of the girls cite domestic chores as the main reason for quitting education.
Undoubtedly, India has made tremendous progress in increasing enrollment for children aged 6-14 years in the past few years due to efforts of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) as well the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act.
"[E]fforts must be directed towards addressing both the "push" and "pull" factors that negatively impact retention and transition rates, particularly for girls."
But now efforts must be directed towards addressing both the "push" and "pull" factors that negatively impact retention and transition rates, particularly for girls. It is also time to work towards extending universal elementary education to at least the secondary if not senior secondary level of education. To reach this goal, the school system must provide relevant, flexible and quality instruction to meet the needs of all children, including those who might have been absent from school due to household difficulties, seasonal migration or harvesting.
In addition, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that the poorest children are protected from being pushed into child labour or burdened with long hours of unpaid "family work" that can have a negative impact on their future, by providing social protection to their families. To achieve this, it is essential to adopt a holistic, multi-sectoral approach with effective partnerships between governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations, international bodies and community groups.