International policy debates on child labour issues have recently witnessed the emergence of a new set of factors - working childrens organisations from Africa, Asia and Latn America. Many of these organisations have a long history of working with working children to help them improve their lot in some cases over 20 years
International policy debates on child labour issues have recently witnessed the emergence of a new set of factors - working childrens organisations from Africa, Asia and Latn America. Many of these organisations have a long history of working with working children to help them improve their lot in some cases over 20 years. It is however. only in the last two years that working children's organisations have become visible in international debates and have participated in conferences and discussions on child labour issues, in their own countries and internationally
Althongh the Unitcd Nations Convention on the Rights oh the Child ( 1989) confers on children and young people the right to participate in decisions about issues that affect them and the right to organise. the involvement of working children's organisations in international chiId labour debates has been extremely controversial. It is often charged that the children concerned are not really representative of child workers, particularly those involved in the most hazardous and exploitative forms of work; or that they are manipulated by adults.
This paper is intended to inform discussion of working children's organisations. It presents five organisations and movements examining their history, their philisophical and political orientations and the kinds of activities in which they are involved. The focus is in the organisations in their local and national context, rather than in the international debates where they have attracted so much attention. Wherever possible, the voices of working children themselves illustrate wha participate (in in these organisations has meant to them.
Preparations for the drafting of the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) forthcoming Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour were marked by a v igorous and historical attempt by organised working children and youth2 to take part in the international decision-making process.
The experience left the children feeling that - nearly a decade on from the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - there is still a considerable gap between the rhetoric about the right of children to participate in decisions affecting them and their ability to do so. Some feel that they have not really been listened to, others that, though they have been heard, their views have not really been taken into account.
Their movements represent tens of thousands of child workers in Africa, Asia and Latin America and have a long collective history of fighting the exploitation and abuse of working children and of protecting their members against abuse. A number are playing an important role in their own countries in the development of children's rights. Some are already contributing systematically to the formulation of local and even national policy.
In their first intervention in the international debate about a new ILO Convention - at the Amsterdam Conference on Child Labour in 1997 - delegates from the working children's movements caused something of a stir. Some adult delegates imagined that the children would put their views across in the form of a song or a theatrical sketch but they spoke to the issues with great confidence and adroitness, holding their own with government labour ministers, trades union leaders and captains of industry. It was hard to believe that they came from remote villages and city slums. They presented a list of 10 demands worked out by their organisations and movements in 33 countries and adopted at a little-publicised First International Meeting of Working Children held in Kundapur, India, in 1996. With the notable exception of Brazil's National Movement of Street Boys and Girls (MNMMR) - which took a markedly different position on child labour from the others - the declaration produced at Kundapur had enjoyed unanimous backing.
The first of the demands the young workers presented in Amsterdam was for "recognition of our problems, initiatives, proposals and our process of organisation". The other demands underpinned the core position that, because their lives and those of their families depended on their working, they wanted the right to work. Governments, they said, should seriously tackle the causes of child work - primarily poverty. In the meantime, they should regulate rather than ban children's work, giving them access to dignified employment, attuned not to their age but their personal development, properly remunerated and with working hours that leave ample room for education and leisure needs. Governments should also make sure working children get quality schooling and occupational training adapted to their lives as workers. None of the young delegates regarded work as a substitute for school, but as the means by which children, given the impoverishment of their families, might get an education and be contributors rather than dependants. Once the economic compulsions of child work were removed, children ought to have the choice of whether to work or not. Finally the movements wanted to be consulted in all decisions concerning working children at local, national and international levels.
While they supported a new Convention that would stamp out extreme forms of exploitation- - use of children in slavery, prostitution, drug-trafficking - they wanted to be sure that it was both drawn up and implemented in ways that really would serve the best interests of the children involved, improving their quality of life, along with that of their families and communities. They urged that, at each step in implementing the new Convention, the children likely to be affected ought to be be fully consulted and argued that this would happen most effectively where working children were organised.
A mix of factors made it difficult for them to get their case across to their satisfaction. Their demands for access to appropriate beneficial work, twinned with an international assault on poverty, put them at odds with trades unionists and governments who argue for the retention of ILO's Minimum Age Convention 138. With some important exceptions, Convention 138 seeks to remove children from the work-force on the basis of age. Underlying this opposition of views is the challenge that organised working children present to conventional ideas about childhood.
The children's movements are leading exponents of the participation and brganisation of children. Most came into being because of the lack of concerted action by the state, or anyone else, to provide the most basic protection or development opportunities to the children of poor neighbourhoods. What the movements have done is build on children's ability to help protect themselves against the physical and psychological traumas that poverty and social exclusion expose them to. They have gone further, enabling children in varying degrees to become protagonists for their rights and for social change rather than victims of poverty. In Brazil, for example, the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls (MNMMR) has played a major role in exposing the killing of children by death squads. The members of Bhima Sangha - a union of working children in Karnataka, India have taken effective action against employers who exploit and abuse child workers.
In itself, membership of a movement provides elements of protection, access to information and opportunities for personal development that are generally unavailable to unorganised child workers or, for that matter, children in conventional schools. So the young delegates' intervention in Amsterdam was not only the first of its kind, it was also being made by young people who had benefited from a new kind of developmental opportunity. They came confident that they could contribute valuable ideas about the best interests of working children and, if policy-makers were now concerned with their protection, wanting a say in what form such protection would take.
Perhaps the major problem the movements faced in engaging in the child labour debate was that little was known of them. As the Head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, remarked in a meeting with delegates from the movements, it was something very new for policy-makers to encounter children and young people demanding a say in their decision-making processes.
The representatives of young workers' movements gained some important recognition at Amsterdam, most notably from ministers in the Dutch Government, but relatively few ministers or union leaders sought them out. Furthermore, the reactions of some adult delegates hardly augured well for child-centred implementation of the new Convention. Some implied that the young delegates were being told what to say by adults who had their own agenda. Others said that, as they were mainly in their late teens, they had no right to speak for children.3 Yet others feared that they would play into the hands of unscrupulous employers who would exploit their position to oppose the new Convention. The young representatives felt they had little chance to explain what their movements really had to offer and that trades unions - which should have been their allies - were against them. They feared they would not be given representation at the ensuing International Conference on Child Labour in Oslo. In the event, their representation in Oslo was reduced to three delegates (from eight in Amsterdam), although a last minute widening of the door by the newly- elected Norwegian government allowed a representative of working children to address the conference.
Anyone observing the intensive deliberations of the young delegates immediately before and during the Amsterdam Conference could see that they were not manipulated. These were meetings at which they prepared their strategies, allocated tasks among themselves and planned their interventions in what was a highly unfamiliar and sophisticated conference arena. Although most of the delegates had experienced great hardship, and some of them abuse, they appeared very balanced young people, affirming, if anything, the newly emerging insight that being active participants in society is - more than a right - greatly beneficial to children's personal development.~ They conducted themselves in a dedicated and thoroughly democratic manner, reconciling differences with considerable skill, drawing on the adult facilitators present for additional information and practical support and occasionally checking their interventions when they threatened to interfere with their work. Every now and then, they would break the tension with a joke, or a game or a rousing song. Their concentrated energy often left the accompanying adults flagging.
A VALUABLE RESOURCE
This report offers a brief but overdue introduction to the various working children's movements and reveals some of their many achievements as evidence of the valuable part they have to play in the battle against the systematic exploitation and abuse of chilaren. The report focuses on the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls in Brazil (MNMMR), the African Movement of Working Children and Youth, the Movement of Working Children of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the BalMazdoorSangh and Bhima Sangha in India. They are not the only organisations fostering the participation and organisation of children, but they are major players who are in turn inspiring the development of other movements. I have direct knowledge of the MNMMR and on the basis of that and available documentation, along with interviews and observation of the movements in Amsterdam and Oslo, I have tried to convey how the movements themselves understand what they are doing. In some of the accounts I have highlighted the role of a particular organisation in the development of a national or regional movement. I have done so to allow for some richness of detail and illustration in what is a very brief introductory account. The cost of such a brief report has been not paying tribute to some of the other major contributions made by other people and organisations.
The story of the development of the participation and organisation of working children in the South begins some 30 years ago. It develops in the context of govemments pursuing national and international economic policies that have resulted in the social abandonment of millions of children, along with their families and whole communities. In many parts of the world, the process has been marked by large and rapid migrations of people from neglected rural areas to overcrowded, unserviced urban slums; the weakening and breaking up of communities; the undermining of families' struggles to survive poverty; and the translation of a traditional role of children as contributors to the family labour force to a cash-economy.
The process has also been marked by the flow of children to the streets. While some such children are abused and exploited by their own families, the vast majority play an essential part in their families' resistance to poverty - they work to help themselves and their families survive. Simply to remove them from that role would have severe consequences. Furthermore many children who do not work are as, or even more, exposed to dangerously unsanitary conditions, violence and neglect.
Most of the children's movements grew from the localised actions of small groups of individuals who were appalled at the waste of human life and potential unfolding before their eyes. Despairing of the likelihood of the state acting in the best interest of all the people, they voluntarily took responsibility upon themselves.
The first initiatives - in Brazil and Peru - were started by unconventional Salesian priests working closely with groups of young adults with a strongly spiritual motivation. These pioneers were themselves from poor neighbourhoods and identified with a growing popular resistance to social exclusion and oppression being developed by organised labour, neighbourhood associations, women's and indigenous peoples' organisations and others. They were inspired by liberation theology, which identified Christianity with commitm ent to the liberation struggle of the poor, and they had a contrasting view of the value of human life to that which underpinned the processes of social exclusion. For them, each human being has an inherent value; to ignore that value in others is to turn your back on your own potential for good. The pioneers also had a utopian vision of society - one based on mutual concern, love, respect and development of the individual within the community - which was quite opposed to marketplace models created by people and groups pursuing personal gain irrespective of the impact on others. They wished to dismantle hierarchical power relationships in the state, church and society, including the domination of men over women, and so pioneered radically child-centred approaches. The movements in both countries would argue that their methodologies were primarily developed with the full participation of children through a process of observation, action and review.
The two initiatives do, however, have somewhat different frames of reference. In Pent, the Movement of Working Children and Adolescents from Christian Working Class Families (Manthoc), reflects the great value attributed both to Christianity and to work. It has drawn on and adapted the methodology developed by the Young Christian Workers' movement founded in Belgium in 1925 - that of 'education through collective observation, action and review, directed at building the new society from the grassroots.' Its emphasis on work also picks up on the identification of work with life in Andean cultures. Manthoc deliberately highlights a positive aspect of the socially excluded children who are its members - the fact that as workers they contribute to the economy. The name of the Brazilian organisation - The Republic of Small Vendors - identifies it most markedly with the practice of participative democracy. The Republic grew partly from the efforts of a group of young activists to put Christianity to work in the community,
These early pioneers, like others who have followed, were also reacting to the failure of existing state and voluntary sector responses to Street and working children, In many countries, state policy towards such children was oppressive and often violent and corrupt - administered mainly through the police and courts and directed at protecting mainstream society rather than the child. Many church institutions were also disciplinarian and oppressive. Meanwhile, the charitable and welfare responses of the church and the voluntary sectors at best rescued a few children in the multitude. At worst they created dependency in the children they tried to help, alienated them from their families and communities and failed to equip them to survive as independent adults in the labour market. They did nothing to attack the causes of the social abandonment of children.
If anything, these approaches revealed that the adult world did not know what was best for such children. Reluctant to create yet another damaging prescription, the pioneers of the children's movements set out instead to build a relationship of solidarity with children and reinforce their strengths rather than respond to their disadvantages. Instead of removing them from the streets and workplaces in which society had abandoned them, they joined them there, developing the role of reliable companion, street educator, animator, collaborator as they are variously called. Through this relationship they planned to enable the children - who were generally treated with disdain - to realise their own value and to demonstrate that value to the society that had rejected them.
Because the work of these movements is founded on the belief that everyone is of value and has a contribution to make and because it is pitched against processes of social exclusion, the movements developed participatory democratic forms requiring the adults involved to review their own power relationship with children and the children their power relationships with each other. Thus the movements have become a means by which both children and supporting adults can explore and define their role as citizens.
As movements and organisations of street and working children have spread and grown, other adult social actors have become involved. They include activists from other churches and other religions and many from non-church backgrounds - people from trade unions, neighbourhood associations, non-government and government organisations and a wide range 'of academic and professional backgrounds. The pedagogy of Paulo Freire became an important reference in the development of the movements in a number of countries, but there were also other influences. Gandhi's ideas, for instance, helped inspire the activists who supported the development of Bhima Sangha. In Africa and India, the movements emerged from the initiatives of secular voluntary organisations, and in one case from the intervention of trade union activists who took up the cause of working child ren. Some of the newer movements drew inspiration from those in Latin America, whose work was broadcast internationally through UNICEF, non-governmental (NGO) and church networks and through the media. Other movements started spontaneously with groups of people deciding to take responsibility for the difficulties faced by children in their immediate neighbourhoods.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE MOVEMENTS
The various movements differ in some of their views and strategies, child labour being a case in point.. For some, the work of children is of positive value and a right. It is because children are contributors to society that they have the right to be social protagonists. For others work is a necessity. They want the economic compulsion for children to work to be removed and, until it is, for work to be regulated in children's best interest and working children to be respected for their contribution. For Brazil's MNMMR, and some other organisations not included in this report, the prime requirement for children is access to undisrupted schooling, requiring an end to work below the age of 14. After that age children should have access to dignified work that allows them to continue with their schooling or contributes to their training and preparation for the world of work. Unlike the other movements, MNMMR participated in the Global March Against Child Labour.
These different standpoints have had some important consequences. In March 1998 delegates from the working children's movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean - but not Brazil - met in Dakar and formed the International Committee of Working Children's Movements.
In anticipation of the June 1998 ILO Conference, they issued a statement:
· urging that working children's movements are consulted before processes concerning them are launched; · declaring their opposition to such 'intolerable forms of child labour' as prostitution, drug-trafficking and slavery but identifying them as crimes rather than forms of work; · asserting that one day (when the causes that compel children to work have been tackled) children should have the choice of whether to work or not; · stating that the work children do should depend not on their age but on their development and capabilities; · explaining that their movements did not support the Global March Against Child Labour because they could not 'march against their own jobs' and were not taken account of in the planning phase of the march.
The Committee also asked to participate officially in the ILO Conference at which a draft of the new Convention would be presented. The bid failed because the movements did not meet conference requirements in terms of their statutes.
There are other differences between the movements, for instance in the structural relationships between the children and supporting adults. Manthoc was conceived of as an independent movement of working children. The adults who initiated it planned to support the movement from the outside but were included at the children's insistence. Brazil's MNMMR was formed by adult educators as an organisation of both educators and children. However the adults are committed to children's participation and organisation and have encouraged children to define their own form of organisation, expression and lines of action within the movement. What has emerged is more of a partnership or alliance of children and educators. In other cases - Bhima Sangha and the African Movement of Working Children and Youth are examples - adult supporters are located in separate voluntary organisations which foster and act as resource centres for the organisation of working children.
It is not within the scope of this introduction to analyse these and other intriguing differences except to observe that they indicate that the movements have developed independently and in very different cultural, political and socioeconomic frameworks. For example, differing attitudes to child labour among the movements may be located in differing values attributed culturally to children's work. They may relate to the availability, or otherwise, of work that helps rather than impedes children's development. The fact that Brazil is a major economic power in which no child should have to work, but which also suffers the world's most skewed distribution of wealth, may have a bearing on MNMMR's stand on work.
More remarkable perhaps, given the differences, are the similarities that identify the movements with each other.
What the adults in all the movements try to give children from the poorest neighbourhoods is an experience of being valued, respected and included. By encouraging them to reflect on their experience and act together to try to overcome their problems, they also enable them to develop analytital skills, an experience of solidarity and the confidence to take action. Instead, of being defined by the values of mainstream society as failures and victims, the children are able in varying degrees to develop a critical awareness of that society, motivating them to seek social change.
The movements have made many remarkable achievements, demonstrating that working children have major contributions to make to social development and to their own development and protection. Some have been key players in the promotion of children's rights, to the benefit not only of themselves but of all children. Some have developed ways to feed their ideas into local and national policy- making processes.
All have had some impact - in some cases considerable - on public attitudes towards working children. Their achievements are wide- ranging - persuading local authorities to repair bridges and roads used by children, developing and persuading schools to pilot curricula for working children, supporting neighbourhood struggles for improved services, negotiating access to health care for street and working children, tackling abusive employers and negotiating better working conditions.
Children involved in the movements have come to see their struggle as integral to that of their families, neighbourhoods and all marginalised people. Asked what he understood by citizenship, Vidal Coco Mamani, then of Manthoc and a delegate at the Amsterdam Conference, replied without hesitation:
It is to be the subject of rights and know your responsibilities. It is to want to be treated as a member of society, not as a victim of poverty. As citizens we should respected - whether we are very small kids, working children, adults or old people. Citizenship is the exercise of mutual respect.
While there is no systematic record of what happens in adulthood to children from the movements, a number - and perhaps many - have become activists in the children's movements themselves, in trades unions and other branches of popular movements. It is the hope and expectation of adults in the movements that the children will continue to develop their role as citizens throughout their lives, strengthening the grassroots resistance to poverty and the bottom-up demand for social change.
Few if any of the adults involved in the movements would claim that their way of working is the only way, or a model for others, or that they get it right all the time. They are still explorers of territory that is very new. Nevertheless, their movements are among the most advanced manifestations of what many people now recognise to be essential to the development and well-being of children but few know how to procure - the active participation of children themselves in determining what happens in their lives.
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Last updated 21/03/2001 06:12:56