This year, as Issac Newton (14) gets ready to go to school, he has a new agenda. As part of the Child Rights Protection team of Arunodhaya that works for mainstreaming street and working children, he will go to different schools with his friends and urge students to explain to their parents how wrong it is to employ a child as a domestic help. “Parents understand these things better when their own children tell them,” he says.
To drive home the message of the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act that prescribes imprisonment and fine for persons who employ children below the age of 14, several former child labourers, including Issac, who have been rehabilitated, enacted a street play here on Sunday. The event was to mark World Day against Child Labour. Lack of medical care, hazards associated with cooking and handling chemical cleaning fluids and neglect associated with domestic work were highlighted.
While the instances of child labour have seen a decline in the State in the past two years, there is much more to do, say activists. “Many children of migrant workers from rural areas of Tamil Nadu and other States are working at construction sites and brick kilns. There is no scientific study on them, so the numbers remain vague. About 96 per cent of the child labourers in the city work in the informal sector, including the hotel industry, homes and automobile mechanic shops,” says R. Vidya Sagar, Child Protection specialist, UNICEF.
The census results on school data may show about 99 per cent children enrolled in schools but the long absenteeism and drop out rates prevalent among children in backward areas is not considered, he says.
Promoting self-monitoring among apartment owners, spreading awareness among parents about the RTE Act and notifying schools that hold screening tests and deny admissions have to be worked on, say activists.
The Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) and Don Bosco Anbu Illam with help from other NGOs supervise child helplines in association with the police. From April 2009 to March 2011, the Chennai chapter of Childline responded to about 3,318 intervention calls that included call for help from child workers, and reports of children reportedly missing. But most persons accused in cases of child labour get acquitted because there is no proof of the victim's age, says Mr.Vidya Sagar.
Mothers often take their children along for domestic work, and the owners in turn give them school bags and uniforms. In this process, the children are often pulled in to work, and their schooling takes a back seat, says E. Mala, field worker at Arunodhaya that has identified around 282 child domestic workers in the city this year.
“Often, when we approach the households again, we find the child has disappeared. While most are aged between 10 and 17, many of them are as young as five or six. These children are hardly paid Rs.500 -600 a month, and sometimes nothing but just a little food everyday,” she says. Most apartment complexes do not allow us to get inside and identify child domestic workers, which makes it all the more difficult, says Suneetha Vellankani, project officer at Arunodhaya.
“While abolishing child labour is a challenge, getting the children to school and making them study remains a bigger one. Ensuring the continuity of their education is the most important,” says Girija Kumarababu, joint secretary, ICCW.