June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour. CRY representative Regina Thomas tells Bhumika K. how citizens need to be involved in their own neighbourhood to help eliminate child labour

Each child has the right to a childhood, but many get sucked into the whirlpool of work much before they are able to talk straight. Child Rights and You (CRY) has instilled the idea that children, as citizens of the country, have equal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution; they don't need sympathy. On World Day Against Child Labour, Regina Thomas, Director-South, CRY talks about the complexities of why children end up in a workplace rather than a classroom. Excerpts:

Are children and their issues largely ignored in a world run by adults?

In my 27 years of experience in the field with CRY, I have seen that people, out of inherent goodness in them, want to help and to give back to society. We just need to give them the right opportunity and show them the easiest way to act within their own surroundings. It's definitely not an ignored area, but more priority is needed.

How will the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act impact on the movement to reduce child labour?

We at CRY welcome it; we've been involved in the campaign from the beginning. While the RTE makes education compulsory for children aged 6 to 14, we would also like the 14 to 18 age group included. If education is made accessible to the 6 to 14 age group, child labour will definitely go down. Many people have this notion that parents of underprivileged families don't want to send their children to school. But they want their children to go to school but they very often don't have access to education. There is also the reality that some parents need additional income. We need to ensure minimum wages to adults to ensure that kids don't need to supplement their income. In all the projects that we fund we focus on enrolment and retention in education. There are all sorts of discriminations against children — in some schools Dalit children are made to wash toilets and clean the compound. That may be a reason why the child doesn't want to go to school. The dropout rate is higher among girls at puberty, especially because there are no toilets at school.

We have the concept of children's collectives, where among children of a village (we work in 4,500 villages in India) through games etc we instil confidence, life skills, awareness of their rights. Once they understand their rights, there have been instances where children have stopped child marriages by reporting it to the community. Our work is intensive and we go to the root level to tackle an issue like child labour — we work around everything like education, access to schools, access to public health centres (PHC), immunisation, access to anganwadis, nutrition in schools, and so much more.

Why did CRY choose to be an enabler and not an implementer?

When Rippan Kapur started CRY nearly 33 years ago, he was sure even then that the organisation would be an enabler. He saw that many people were committed to work, they had the drive. But there were no funds or access to resources. At that point itself it was decided that CRY would be a channel. We have the knowhow and are well-equipped to raise and disburse funds. We seek financial support, we seek volunteers and citizen action groups, child rights advocates in the neighbourhood. We want to get people to take action. We're supporting 200 programmes in 20 states in India. We can take the experience and knowledge we have gathered to the government while formulating policies.

We all encounter child labour in some form or other in our everyday lives. As individuals, what can we do to help?

Every action one takes to protect a child's life counts. For example if you see a child working at a construction site, call up organisations like us, ask where to complain (see box for details). One thing you can do is simply report to a children's helpline. Then, you could report it to the press. We have citizen action groups in four areas in Bangalore. We have a group in Koramangala made up of senior citizens, college goers, IT company employees. They enrol kids from slums nearby in schools; stay in touch and track dropouts. The Government brings out lots of acts but it's the citizens' duty to help implement them. Once all of us see children as citizens with their rights, a lot more will happen.

As a lead up to the World Day Against Child Labour and to spread awareness that the problem of child labour still exists despite the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act (2006), we have tied up with around eight restaurants in the city. These are child labour-free restaurants that have agreed to create awareness by putting up our posters and talking to customers; customers can also add something in the bill that will come to CRY.

Despite being an aware society, we constantly hear of children being abused or exploited. Is the problem one of attitude?

Yes, it is about attitudes and they need to be changed. Even in privileged communities, people feel that taking on a child and giving employment is helping. What they don't understand is that the child is losing out on childhood. We won't do these things to our own children!